Born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France on March 7th 1975, French composer Maurice Ravel was very influenced by his mother’s Spanish heritage and love of Spanish folk song. From an early age it was clear that Ravel had musical capabilities and his parents encouraged this, paying for him to have piano lessons, as well as instruction in harmony, counterpoint and composition. Whilst he was obviously a talented pianist, he showed a stronger desire to compose. In order to encourage his musical pursuits further, Ravel’s parents sent him to the Paris Conservatory, initially as a preparatory student and then as a piano major. He studied first with Émile Descombes and received a first prize in the piano in his first year (1891). More generally, however, Ravel saw limited success at the conservatory and although his musicianship matured significantly, his academics were weak. Ravel was unfortunately expelled in 1895, after failing to be awarded a competitive medal in three consecutive years. Three years later, he returned to the conservatory in order to study composition with Gabriel Fauré. Unfortunately, he fell victim once more of failing to win any competitive prizes and so was expelled for the second time in 1900.
In the 1890s, Ravel became a good friend of contemporary impressionist composer Claude Debussy. The two’s relationship was a strong one, with much sharing in the joys of each other’s’ music. Unfortunately however, the relationship did not last as the public quickly criticised both composers, finding too much influence of one in the works of the other. The critics formed factions for each composer and gradually, fuelled by public pressure, the two began to feud away from the public eye and their friendship crumbled.
In 1909, Ravel began work on what would become one of his most important works to date. Daphnis et Chloé was a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev and after three years of creation, it was premiered to a somewhat unenthusiastic reception, lasting just two performances. It was revived a year later to much greater success with Igor Stravinsky eventually saying of the work that it was ‘one of the most beautiful products of all French music’.
Ravel’s most controversial orchestral work, Boléro, was originally conceived as an accompaniment to a ballet rather than an orchestral work. He said of the work that ‘it has no music in it’ and was very surprised by its widespread success. The work was a fascinating source of an argument between Ravel and conductor Arturo Toscanini, when the latter performed the work making interpretative alterations to the written tempi. Ravel said of this afterwards that ‘I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played.’ This argument only served to fuel the fame of the work.
Another of Ravel’s most significant works was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned after Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in the First World War, but still wanted to continue his career as a pianist. The work is often cited as one of his true masterpieces, with critic Henry Prunières saying ‘From the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us’.