April 14, 2009
There is a reason Maurice Ravel’s estate in France earns more royalties than any other French composer’s. His output contains some of the best known, best loved, most colorful, and finely crafted music of the twentieth century. He was influenced by jazz and the music of Spain, and wove those musical threads into an intricately wrought tapestry. He constructed a style upon the foundation laid by Fauré and Debussy, but made something totally new with the building blocks at his disposal. Thought too radical to win one of Composition’s most prized accolades, the Prix de Rome, many of Ravel’s works have entered into standard orchestral repertoire. In honor of Ravel’s status as one of music history’s most interesting figures, I give you the following list:
Ten Interesting Things About Ravel
- Ravel disliked his most famous work, Boléro, believing that it was a trivial composition. He called it, “a piece for orchestra without music.”
- Ravel never married or had any significant romantic relationships. Some have speculated his intense privacy hid homosexuality, but recently, Ravel scholar David Lamaze has claimed that the composer was romantically inspired by a Parisian woman. The proof? A musical motif supposedly based on her name appears throughout many of Ravel’s works.
- In 1900, Ravel joined a group of young artists who called themselves the Apaches. They met every Saturday, sharing their projects—painting, sculpture, music, criticism—with each other, collaborating on ideas, and engaging in lively (sometimes wine-fueled) discussions.
- Ravel admired Debussy, but tried at times to distance himself from his older colleague’s style and method. Ravel once said that if he had had the time, he would have re-orchestrated Debussy’s masterpiece, “La Mer.”
- Ravel tried to enlist as an aviator in World War I, but he was nearly forty and in poor health, so he ended up driving a truck for the service instead.
- Ravel was once challenged to a duel by Russian impressario, Sergei Diaghilev over Ravel’s ballet La Valse. Diaghliev had apparently insulted the work, and Ravel was hurt. When Ravel returned the insult years later (by refusing the shake Diaghilev’s hand), the duel was on. Diaghilev cancelled it at the urging of friends.
- Before and after the war, Ravel traveled around Europe playing his compositions and promoting his work. In 1928, he had a triumphant tour in the United States where he heard real Harlem Jazz and met Gershwin.
- Ravel wrote his stunning and virtuosic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Ravel played the premiere with two hands because the solo part of the concerto is notoriously difficult.
- Ravel leaves the melody of Boléro unchanged throughout ninety percent of the piece. What he does is add layer upon layer of orchestral embellishment. The work ends up as a towering monument to Ravel’s skill as an orchestrator.
- A year ago, there was an article in the New York Times discussing the Frontotemporal Dementia (FTP) Ravel apparently suffered late in his life. FTP, at least in some cases, manifests itself in a loss of language skills, but also sometimes in great bursts of creativity and artistic inspiration.