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Classical Composers A-Z: Maurice Ravel

Peter Wintersgill summarises the life of the prolific French composer Maurice Ravel.

Born
7th March, 1875, in Cibour, near St. Jean de Luz, South of France.

Father
Pierre Joseph, French, automotive engineer.

Mother
Marie, Basque

Family
Younger brother Edward, close to Maurice.

Childhood
Very happy, Started piano lessons at seven, harmony lessons at 11. Started composing at 12, encouraged in musical career.

Adolescence
Entered Paris Conservatoire at 14, where he met Ricardo Vines, a Spanish student, who became a life-long friend. Studied the piano with Berlioz, composition with Faure. Entered for Prix de Rome four times, but never won it. When he failed the fourth time there was an outcry, resulting in Dubois resigning as Director in favour of Faure.

Early Adult Life
His early works included the String Quartet (1902), the song Sheherazade (1903), Miroirs for the piano (1905) and the opera L'Heure Espagnol (1907), parts of this are said to sound like a watchmaker's shop.

His harmony was unconventional, he tended to imitate Chabrier and Satie, also Debussy. He normally composed at the piano and wrote most of his works initially for it. His orchestral and other works were so written and orchestrated later. He was a great orchestrator, e.g. of Debussy and Mussorgsky's works.

When only a student he wrote Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (1899), which made him famous. Other later works included the ballet Daphnis et Chloe (1911), Jeux d'eau (1901), Sonatine (1905) and Gaspard de la Nuit (1908).

Later Adult Life
His best period was up to the start of the great war in 1914: Introduction and Allegro with Harp (1906), Rhapsody Espagnol (1907) and Ma Mere L'Oye 1912) piano duet.

He joined up as an ambulance driver in 1914 and was invalided out with dysentery in 1917, after which he had a severe attack of depression. He was a very private person, never revealing his inner feelings even to his closest friends. He was fascinated with things mechanical, especially clockwork toys.

After the war, about 1920, came the end of an era, for Ravel personally as well as for the world in general. His health deteriorated in a vague sort of way, he had insomnia and lost his bounce. Before the war he was always smart and immaculate, but afterwards he didn't seem to bother.

He scored Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1922) and later his own Bolero (1928). He wrote another opera L'Enfant et la Sortilege (1925) and two piano concertos (1931), one for the left hand for a pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right hand, He also wrote a violin sonata in 1927.

He made concert tours to London (1922) and the USA (1928), Oxford University making him Hon. Mus. Doc.

In 1932 he had a car accident with head injuries, after which he was never quite the same. He developed headaches which were not investigated much, as they were put down to his accident. He finally had an operation for a brain tumour, which was not successful, and he died on 28th December, 1937, in Paris aged 62.

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