Composer. He and Claude Debussy were the foremost French musicians of their time. Ravel's exquisitely polished music is marked by great clarity and precision, a prevalence of dance rhythms, and a rich sense of instrumental color. His ballet "Bolero" (1928), with its unforgettable melody and insinuating eroticism, is among the best-loved pieces in the orchestral repertory. Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, near France's southwestern border with Spain. As a student at the Paris Conservatory from 1889 to 1903, he found a sympathetic composition teacher in Gabriel Fauré but more often clashed with the conservative members of that establishment. Their ongoing battle climaxed in 1905 when the Prix de Rome Committee, having failed to award Ravel a prize four years in a row, kicked him out of the competition altogether. A scandal ensued and the head of the Conservatory, Theodore Dubois, was forced to resign; he was replaced by Faure. The main reason for the controversy was that Ravel had already established himself as a composer of promise. He first gained note with the "Pavane For a Dead Princess" (1899) for piano; as he would do with many of his keyboard works, he later arranged it for orchestra. This was followed by "Jeux d'eau" (1901), the Sonatine (1905), and "Miroirs" (1905) for piano; the beautiful String Quartet in F (1903), dedicated to Faure; and the song cycles "Scheherazade" (1903) and "Histoires naturelles" (1906). Critics unjustly accused him of imitating Debussy with these early efforts, but with the dazzling orchestral showpiece "Rhapsodie espagnole" (1907) Ravel came firmly into his own. It led to a commission from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes; the result, "Daphnis and Chloe" (1912), is regarded as Ravel's greatest masterpiece. He derived two concert suites from the ballet and the Suite No. 2, capped by the orgiastic "Bacchanale" finale, is popular. Other notable works of the period include "Gaspard de la nuit" (1908) for piano; the one-act comic opera "The Spanish Hour" (1911); the witty, acerbic "Noble and Sentimental Waltzes" (piano version 1911, for orchestra, 1912); "Mother Goose" (1910) for piano duet, later a ballet; and the Piano Trio in A minor (1914). In 1915 Ravel joined the French Army hoping to become a fighter pilot, but because of his age he was assigned to driving an ordinance truck until invalided out of the service in 1917. His principal opus of the World War I years was the piano suite "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (completed 1917), a set of 18th Century-style dances which he intended as a tribute to the spirit of French music. Each of its six movements was dedicated to a friend killed in battle. The shadow of war also loomed over his next masterwork, the tone poem "La Valse" (1920); in it Ravel used the Viennese Waltz to symbolize the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Never a prolific composer, Ravel's output slowed after 1920 though he continued to produce great music: the short opera "The Child and the Sorcerers" (1925) to a libretto by Colette, "Tzigane" (1924) for violin and orchestra, the "Songs of Madagascar" (1926), and the Violin Sonata (1927). He also made his well-known orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky's piano work "Pictures from an Exhibition" (1922). In 1928 Ravel went on a highly successful 25-city tour of the United States and Canada, conducting and playing his music, and upon his return enjoyed the biggest triumph of his career with "Bolero". Dancer Ida Rubenstein had asked him for a ballet arrangement of "Espana" by Isaac Albeniz, but Ravel went ahead with an original Spanish-themed work instead. "Discovering" the bolero tune by accident while improvising at the piano one day, Ravel was so taken with it he decided to make it the subject of a long and brilliantly sustained crescendo. Although it was written to no specific program, the sexual connotations of the music were obvious and no doubt contributed to the mainstream popularity of the piece. "Bolero" quickly took two continents by storm and freed Ravel from financial worries for the rest of his life. It has been recorded countless times (the first conducted by the composer himself soon after the premiere) and used in several films, notably the hit comedy "10" (1979). Today the Ravel Estate continues to earn millions a year in royalties, mostly from performances of "Bolero". Ravel's last major compositions were two piano concertos, completed back to back in 1931. The Concerto in G was written for his favorite interpreter, pianist Marguerite Long. Jazz phrases and cheeky nods at George Gershwin abound in its spirited outer movements, which bookend a limpid and surprisingly introspective adagio. The Concerto for the Left Hand is unique in the keyboard literature. Commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the war, it offered Ravel his greatest technical challenge because he was determined to make it sound like an orthodox virtuoso display. He succeeded beyond question; listening to it one would never guess only one hand was being used. It also contains some of Ravel's most exciting material and only its unusual nature has prevented it from becoming better-known. Not long after the war Ravel began complaining of "brain fatigue" and found it increasingly difficult to compose. His condition was never definitively diagnosed but most agree he suffered from multiple apraxia, a neurological disorder that causes loss of certain motor and coordinative skills. Ravel's symptoms grew more pronounced after he was injured in a 1932 auto accident. After struggling for two years to complete the three simple songs of "Don Quixote and Dulcinea" (1933), he fell silent. He told friends he could still conceive music and had worked out a symphony, a string quartet, and parts of an opera in his head, but was tragically unable to put his ideas on paper. On December 19, 1937, Ravel underwent brain surgery in Paris. Pessimistic about the outcome, he remarked upon entering the clinic, "I still had so much music to write". The operation failed and Ravel died nine days later without regaining consciousness. He was buried with his parents at the Levallois-Perret Cemetery in Paris. As an artist Ravel is difficult to classify. Most historians peg him as an Impressionist because, like Debussy, he was a harmonic innovator who broke away from German Romanticism in favor of a Gallic musical language; but there the similarities end. Ravel saw himself as more of a Classicist because he preferred objective expression and relied on old and even archaic forms to present his new ideas. If any label fits him it is that of an eclectic. His influences ranged from Couperin and Mozart to Chabrier and Erik Satie, traditional Spanish dances, the "Mighty Five" Russians, and music from the Far and Middle East. He later took a liking to jazz and went out of his way to meet Gershwin during his visit to America. He seamlessly distilled all these disparate sources into a style distinctively his own. A perfectionist who placed enormous importance on craft, Ravel worked slowly and with great concentration, leaving no detail to chance. Igor Stravinsky compared him to a "Swiss watchmaker". Among his contemporaries only Richard Strauss rivalled him as an orchestrator, though while Strauss pursued new avenues of dramatic utterance Ravel sought refinement and a more painterly use of color. Real passion and spontaneity seldom break through the gleaming surfaces of Ravel's music but it offers an abundance of charm and sheer beauty. The fastidiousness Ravel displayed in his work also applied to his person. Sensitive about his small stature (he stood 5'1"), he compensated by becoming a great dandy, closely following the latest fashion trends and even helping to set a couple himself (he was one of the first men in France to wear pastel-colored dress shirts). A political liberal and a religious agnostic, his lifelong mistrust of authority compelled him, in 1920, to refuse the Legion of Honor, though he later proudly accepted an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford University. The veil of secrecy Ravel drew over his personal affairs has long intrigued scholars. He never married, had many friends but few intimates, and for most of his life he lived alone or with his mother. Many have speculated he was gay but there is no real evidence of his inclinations one way or the other. Whatever his passions, they were apparently sublimated in his music, a body of work that continues to enthrall music lovers around the world.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards