There are many personal anecdotes about composers and artists with loud voices, raucous laughs, controversial opinions or hot tempers. Big personalities tend to stick in the memory. For a composer like Ravel, however, personality is overshadowed by music, which isn’t a bad thing, of course. It just means that he left the drama to his music, although he still stirred up controversy now and then (whether he meant to or not). Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye appears on LACO’s upcoming concert. He wrote it as a piano duet for children, but later orchestrated it for a chamber ensemble.
Ravel was born in the Basque region of France, very close to the border of Spain. Ravel’s father taught him all about engineering and music, and his mother sang him folk songs that influenced his compositional style. Another great influence was the Paris Exposition that took place in 1889. Ravel was fourteen at the time, and he heard works by Rimsky-Korsakov, a member of the Russian nationalists, The Mighty Five. Claude Debussy also attended the Paris Exposition, where he heard the Javanese gamelan, an important influence in his developing style. Of course, he was a bit older than Ravel, but the two became acquaintances in the 1890s.
Ravel was accepted into the Conservatoire de Paris in late 1889. He grew very much as an artist there, but did not conform well to the conservative ways of the institution. Ravel had a unique learning style, having been mostly educated by his father (we don’t have records of formal schooling in his youth). Because he was not the kind of student favored by the Conservatoire at the time, he was encouraged to leave in 1895. He left, choosing to focus on writing music in his own way. While out of school, he met Erik Satie and found Satie’s musical philosophy very influential on his own style. In 1897, Ravel returned to the Conservatoire and met Gabriel Fauré, who would become his teacher and a great source of support. Ravel never quite fit in at the Conservatoire, but his relationship with Fauré remained strong. Ravel seemed unbothered by most people’s opinions, and was unperturbed by unfavorable reviews.
After 1900, Ravel got involved with a group of other artists. They formed a club and called themselves Les Apaches. It was what we might call an artistic collective today, with writers, composers, and visual artists all working with each other, cross-pollinating each other’s work, and offering support and encouragement. Les Apaches were very supportive of the work of Debussy, who was not a member, but represented to them an individuality of spirit that spoke to their ideals. Les Apaches formed an enthusiastic faction in the audience of Debussy’s controversial opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Ravel reportedly attended all fourteen performances.
Ravel and Debussy began to get categorized together as Impressionist composers. The term itself was meant in a derogatory way when it was coined. Debussy did not like the descriptor, and although Ravel did not mind it, he also felt it was not a fair label for his music. Ravel was more preoccupied with forms and structures, while Debussy’s compositional style was more open and free. The friendship between the two composers, always cool, ended in the early years of the twentieth century, for a few different reasons. Their relationship was not helped by the desire of the public, who seemed to think they must choose an allegiance to one or the other.
Years earlier, Debussy had won one of composition’s most coveted prizes, the Prix de Rome. Ravel also set his sights on winning, but came up short all five times he entered the competition. The closest he came to winning was second place (on his second attempt). In his final attempt, in 1905, 30 year old Ravel entered a piece, which was eliminated in the first round. This early dismissal caused a scandal, nicknamed L’affaire Ravel. Even critics who weren’t fans of Ravel’s music thought the first round elimination was unfair, especially when the facts emerged of whose music made it through; a professor on the jury, Charles Lenepveu, taught at the Conservatoire, and the finalists for the Prize all happened to be his students. L’affaire Ravel encouraged sweeping reforms at the Conservatoire. Lenepveu and Théodore Dubois (director of the school and definitely not a fan of Ravel) retired under pressure. Dubois’ replacement? Ravel supporter and teacher Gabriel Fauré—whose Pavane also appears on LACO’s upcoming concert.
Throughout all of the controversy, Ravel kept writing. He was exacting in his work, so he did not produce a large number of pieces. But the work he did complete was beautifully and finely crafted. He was brilliant at orchestrating piano music, his own and that of others, and he was preoccupied with this in the early part of the 1900s. It was in 1910 that Ravel composed his piano piece Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”), and it was a year later that he orchestrated this work.
There is, of course, more to Ravel’s story, but here’s where we’ll leave him for now. He lived for another twenty-five years after Ma mère l’oye, and composed for 20 of those years. His influences grew and his style developed, but there are still many mysteries about his personal life. Even when he became famous, he shook off the adulation, reasoning that neither praise nor bad reviews meant much. He was the picture of calm indifference. Perhaps this is a trait that many artists and composers would like to have—especially when reviews are unfavorable—but it doesn’t make for good press. Perhaps we feel a little distant emotionally from Ravel the man. Anger, passion, frustration—we can see ourselves in that. We can’t see ourselves in his ability to take criticism and praise with the same neutral expression. He saved all of his emotion for his music, and perhaps this is where we feel closest to him.