top of page

Maurice Ravel

1875 - 1937

Joseph Maurice Ravel (7 March 1875 – 28 December 1937) was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer.

(b. Ciboure, March 7, 1875; d. Paris, December 28, 1937)

French composer. One of the most successful composers of the 20th century, to judge from the number of works that have entered the repertoire, he delighted in imagery and evocation, yet had a typically French passion for clarity, balance, and restraint. Wherever he looked— to Spain, classical antiquity, the French Baroque, or jazz—he found raw material for his craftsmanlike talent, a talent that expressed itself in the transformation and shaping of conventional ideas into the most viscerally exciting of musical gestures. 

Ravel’s mother was of Basque descent, his father Swiss, a music-loving engineer. He was born in Basque country, in the southwestern corner of France a short distance from the Spanish border, but was only a few months old when the family moved to Paris. At 14 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, meeting Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie, and eventually studying composition with Gabriel Faure, who discerned in him “a musical nature very taken with novelty, with a disarming sincerity.” The fascination with novelty caused Ravel to fail in his five attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome. By the time of the last attempt, in 1905, he was already an established composer, having produced the exquisite Jeux d’eau (Fountains) for piano, a magnificent string quartet, and the song cycle Sheherazade. The fluency of idiom and consummate command of form exhibited in these works mark them as products of a mature and original musical thinker. Ravel’s failure to win the Prix de Rome boosted his cachet among the cognoscenti and made him a central figure in the antiestablishment crowd; in 1909 he took a leading role in founding the Societe Musicale Independente, created in opposition to the conservative Societe Nationale, under the control of d’lndy.

"Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second."
                                                                                                   Maurice Ravel 

Key Works

In the years 1905-14 Ravel produced some of his finest works, including the piano pieces Miroirs, Gaspard de la nutt, Ma mere l’oye (Mother Goose), and Valses nobles et sentimentales, the extraordinarily accomplished Piano Trio, the orchestral Rapsodieespagnole the ballet Daphnis et Chloe, and the opera L’heure espagnole (Spanish Time).

Following the outbreak of World War I, Ravel volunteered for the air corps but was turned down after failing his physical (he was underweight and had a hernia). Eventually he saw action as a driver in the motorized transport, but in 1916 he came down with dysentery and had to be hospitalized. During a long recuperation in Paris, he completed the piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin, dedicating each of its six movements to a friend or acquaintance who had fallen in the war. The experience of war, his illness, and his mother’s death, early in 1917, cast a pall, and it is tempting to see the first major work Ravel produced after the war—the menacing and surprisingly violent symphonic poem La valse— as an effort to exorcise some demons. For Serge Koussevitzky he created a brilliantly fantastic orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922, but the main work of the early 1920s was the remarkable operatic evocation of childhood dreams and fears, L’enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Magic Spells).


Ravel’s postwar interest in jazz and in such coloristic devices as bitonality stimulated him further, markedly influencing certain pages in his famous orchestral showpiece, Bolero, from 1928. Between 1929 and 1931 Ravel worked simultaneously on two piano concertos—one in D for the left hand, brooding and focused, and one in G major, airy and effervescent. The latter Ravel intended for his own use; its scoring is brilliant, and there is a jazzy flavor to much of the writing that lends a sultry feel to the concerto’s quieter pages and imparts a wonderful vibrancy to its climaxes. The left-hand concerto is a striking contrast in its solemnity, power, and predominantly dark orchestral textures. In the fall of 1932 Ravel was in a traumatic taxi accident that may have triggered the onset of Pick’s disease; he experienced increasing debilitation and died five years later, after brain surgery.

Ravel’s musical language exhibits a penchant for harmonies saturated by sevenths and ninths that reflects his indebtedness to Faure. To everything he did, he brought a meticulous, lapidary quality, achieving a kind of clockwork precision in the musical processes (which his sometime collaborator Stravinsky teased him about) without sacrificing panache. His gift for combining cool sensuality with unhindered display was remarkable.

Ravel’s piano music synthesizes numerous elements, among them the flowing figurations of Faure and the virtuosic etude technique of Chopin and Liszt. Ravel made much of Debussy’s evocative harmony and also pioneered keyboard effects that the elder composer later extended, notably the illusory, shimmering textures of Jeux d’eau (1901). He participated on equal footing with Debussy in making the period 1902-19 the golden age of French piano music.

Much of Ravel’s music looks toward Spain, which for him represented not only a fascinating, remote, dreamlike realm, but also an inexhaustible source of exotic musical ideas and colorful aural imagery. Childhood, whose innocence appealed deeply to Ravel, proved another realm of inspiration, tapped in works such as Ma mere I’oye and L’enfant et les sortileges. Secretive in everything, especially his emotions, Ravel kept himself in some ways a perpetual child, masked and game-playing. The most important human relationship of his life was the one he had with his mother; in his relationships with others, and, through his music, with the world at large, he maintained a chaste tone of impassioned restraint.


Rapsodie Espagnole

Ma mère l'Oye 

Alborada del gracioso

 La Valse

Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 

This ballet was commissioned in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev for his legendary Ballets Russes company. The reception of the first production, in 1912, was lukewarm. However, the work was soon hailed not only as one of Ravel’s masterpieces, but also as one of the high points in a golden age for ballet. The plot is set in a fanciful pastoral setting of Greek antiquity.

FIRST PART: The lovers Daphnis and Chloe are separated by a lively dance of nymphs, shepherd lads and lasses. Chloe is seized by pirates. Daphnis implores the god Pan to rescue her. SECOND PART: Chloe is made to dance for the pirates and tries to flee in vain. The god Pan arrives just in time to scatter the pirates.

THIRD PART: This section opens with a famous sunrise scene, one of the most intoxicatingly voluptuous musical passages ever written. The reunited lovers dance in Pan’s honour, in a closing bacchanalia.

The opulent orchestration calls for large and varied instrumental forces, and an unseen, vocalizing choir. There are two concert suites of Daphnis and Chloe, of which the second, depicting the famous sunrise and bacchanalia, is the most often presented.

Valses nobles et sentimentales

Piano Concerto in G major

Composed in 1929, this much-loved piece proved to be Ravel’s last large-scale work. The two exuberant outer movements frame a lyrical slow movement of haunting beauty.


Here, brilliant and bawdy exuberance, brimming with impish humour and surprising twists and turns, displays Ravel at his most carefree.

SECOND MOVEMENT (ADAGIO ASSAI) Inspired by the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, its extended theme is one of Ravel’s most elaborate and moving melodic ideas, at once serene and elegiac. It is first presented by the piano in a long opening solo, and later reiterated by the cor anglais amidst the soloist’s crystalline decorations.

THIRD MOVEMENT (PRESTO) Ravel was never more mercurial than in this chase between piano and orchestra, the dazzling virtuoso fireworks spiced up with jazzy inflections.

00:00 - I. Allegramente 
08:37 - II. Adagio assai 
18:02 - III. Presto 

Le Tombeau de Couperin

00:00 - 1. Prélude
03:33 - 2. Fugue
06:47 - 3. Forlane
13:42 - 4. Rigaudon
17:00 - 5. Menuet
21:51 - 6. Toccata

Pavane pour une infante défunte

bottom of page