Maurice Ravel


Born: Mar 7, 1875; France   Died: Dec 28, 1937; France   Period: Romantic
Maurice Ravel was among the most significant and influential composers of the early twentieth century. Although he is frequently linked with Claude Debussy as an exemplar of musical impressionism, and some of their works have a surface resemblance, Ravel possessed an independent voice that grew out of his love of a broad variety of styles, including the French Baroque, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Spanish folk traditions, and American jazz and blues. Read more His elegant and lyrically generous body of work was not large in comparison with that of some of his contemporaries, but his compositions are notable for being meticulously and exquisitely crafted. He was especially gifted as an orchestrator, an area in which he remains unsurpassed.
Ravel's mother was of Basque heritage, a fact that accounted for his lifelong fascination with Spanish music, and his father was a Swiss inventor and engineer, most likely the source of his commitment to precision and craftsmanship. At the age of 14, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he was a student from 1889 to 1895 and from 1897 to 1903. His primary composition teacher was Gabriel Fauré. A major disappointment of his life was his failure to win the Prix de Rome in spite of numerous attempts. The difficulty was transparently the conflict between the conservative administration of the Conservatory and Ravel's independent thinking, meaning his association with the French avant-garde (Debussy), and his interest in non-French traditions (Wagner, the Russian nationalists, Balinese gamelan). He had already established himself as a composer of prominence with works such as his String Quartet, and the piano pieces Pavane pour une infante défunte, Jeux d'eau, and the Sonatine, and his loss of the Prix de Rome in 1905 was considered such a scandal that the director of the Conservatory was forced to resign.
Ravel continued to express admiration for Debussy's music throughout his life, but as his own reputation grew stronger during the first decade of the century, a mutual professional jealousy cooled their personal relationship. Around the same time, he developed a friendship with Igor Stravinsky. The two became familiar with each other's work during Stravinsky's time in Paris and worked collaboratively on arrangements for Sergey Diaghilev.
Between 1909 and 1912, Ravel composed Daphnis et Chloé for Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russes. It was the composer's largest and most ambitious work and is widely considered his masterpiece. He wrote a second ballet for Diaghilev, La Valse, which the impresario rejected, but which went on to become one of his most popular orchestral works. Following his service in the First World War as an ambulance driver, and the death of his mother in 1917, his output was temporarily diminished. In 1925, the Monte Carlo Opera presented the premiere of another large work, the "lyric fantasy" L'enfant et les sortilèges, a collaboration with writer Colette.
American jazz and blues became increasingly intriguing to the composer. In 1928 he made a hugely successful tour of North America, where he met George Gershwin and had the opportunity to broaden his exposure to jazz. Several of his most important late works, such as the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 and the Piano Concerto in G show the influence of that interest.
Ironically, Ravel, who in his youth was rejected by some elements of the French musical establishment for being a modernist, in his later years was scorned by Satie and the members of Les Six as being old-fashioned, a symbol of the establishment. In 1932, an injury he sustained in an automobile accident started a physical decline that resulted in memory loss and an inability to communicate. He died in 1937, following brain surgery.
In spite of leaving one of the richest and most important bodies of work of any early twentieth century composer, one that included virtually every genre except for symphony and liturgical music, Ravel is most often remembered for an arrangement of another composer's work, and for a piece he considered among his least significant. His orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition has been wildly popular with concertgoers (and the royalties from it made Ravel a rich man). Boléro, a 15-minute Spanish dance in which a single theme is repeated in a variety of instrumental guises, has been ridiculed for its insistent repetitiveness, but it is also a popular favorite and one of the most familiar and frequently performed orchestral works of the twentieth century. Read less
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe / Gimeno, Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 08/04/2017   Label: Pentatone  
Catalog: 5186652   Number of Discs: 1
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Ravel: Orchestral Works / Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 05/12/2015   Label: Pentatone  
Catalog: 5186204   Number of Discs: 1
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Ravel: L'Enfant et les sortileges; Ma Mere l'Oye - Complete Ballet
Release Date: 10/09/2015   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8660336   Number of Discs: 1
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Ravel, Debussy & Massenet / Bavouzet, Tortelier, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 11/16/2010   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5084   Number of Discs: 1
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Ravel: Orchestral Music, Vol. 1 / Slatkin, Orchestre National De Lyon
Release Date: 11/13/2012   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572887   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Jeux d'eau


About This Work
During the first few years of the twentieth century Maurice Ravel's position as a student at the Paris Conservatoire was by no means a particularly comfortable one. His repeated failure to secure any of the school's academic prizes -- including, on Read more five different occasions, the coveted Prix de Rome -- made it more and more difficult to remain an official student in Fauré's class, and he was eventually dismissed from the school in 1903. During these same years, however, Ravel completed several of his best-known works -- works that were, even at that time, widely considered to be masterpieces. The String Quartet (1902-1903) remains a repertory staple, as does the song cycle Shéhérazade (1903); in terms of sheer impact and immediate musical influence, though, perhaps the most striking work of all is the piano piece Jeux d'eau (1901).

Jeux d'eau, which translates as "Play of Water" or "Fountains," draws heavily on the technically brilliant pianistic style of Franz Liszt, one of Ravel's heroes; indeed, many think that Ravel's work is something of an homage to Liszt's similarly scintillating Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este (1870). Still, Jeux d'eau is something almost totally new, incorporating a kind of pianism unlike any that had ever been dreamed of. With this work Ravel opened the gates for both his own later piano pieces (particularly Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit) and those of other Parisian composers of the day. Debussy was particularly quick to capitalize on the innovations of his young colleague; during the first few years of the decade, as the two composers mutually influenced each other, there was in fact some confusion as to who, in fact, was the real creator of the new style.

Jeux d'eau is thoroughly saturated with the rich sonorities of major seventh chords -- a feature found even in Ravel's earliest music, here taken to a new level. Added to this is the nearly bitonal juxtaposition of two harmonies (C major and F sharp major -- a tritone removed!), which have been collectively dubbed the "Jeu d'eau chord." The ebb and flow of harmonic color is as near to a liquid state as music could ever achieve.

The atmosphere of great exuberance reflected in the quotation at the front of the score ("The river god laughs as the water tickles him"), combined with the continuous arpeggiations and chromatic flourishes, is positively electric in effect. The glistening texture never lets up, and with the approach of the final, pianissimo expanse in E major Ravel allows the pianist an opportunity to let loose with a dramatic, très rapide cadenza. The kind of shimmering pianissimo textures that characterize so much of the composer's later music are already well developed in this work; his reluctance to rely on the same mock-archaic, highly sectional formal designs that hold his earlier piano pieces together indicates a growing appreciation of his own ability to successfully produce extended, self-defined textural essays. While there are clearly two recognizable themes in Jeux d'eau, they are by no means worked out in the Classical manner; to describe the piece as a sonata-allegro form, as indeed some have done, is out of the question. Even if the vague outlines of such a form can be excavated by musical archaeologists, the term has little meaning in regard to this most original of Ravel's keyboard works.

-- Blair Johnston Read less

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