French composer and pianist. His work is characterized by its sensuousness, exotic harmonics, and dazzling orchestral effects. His opera L'enfant et les sortilèges (1924) illustrates most of the various styles that influenced him at different times. Other works include the piano pieces Pavane pour une infante défunte/Pavane for a Dead Infanta (1899) and Jeux d'eau/Waterfall (1901), and the ballets Daphnis et Chloë (1912) and Boléro (1928).
Ravel's father was of Swiss and his mother of Basque descent; they moved to Paris in the year of his birth. Ravel entered the Paris Conservatory in 1889, studying piano with Eugene Anthiôme and later with Charles Wilfrid de Bériot, also theory under Emile Pessard from 1891. He composed a good deal and in 1897 passed to Fauré's class for composition and to that of André Gédalge for counterpoint. In 1899 the Société Nationale performed his overture Shéhérazade (unconnected with the later song-cycle) and the Pavane pour une infante défunte in the original piano version. In 1905 the Paris Conservatory rejected his Prix de Rome submission. This provoked a scandal that led to the resignation of the director. Two of his finest works, the string quartet (1903) and the piano piece Miroirs (1905), date from the same period. In these pieces, as in others, Ravel's indebtedness to the Impressionists, as well as a concentration on minute detail, may be seen. In 1908 he set a new standard of piano writing with Gaspard de la nuit.
During the next ten years he wrote some of his best works. His first great public success came in 1911, when the Opéra-Comique brought out L'heure espagnole, and the second in 1912, when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) produced Daphnis et Chloé. In this work Ravel displays his mastery of colourful orchestration, combining instruments in a subtle, ever-changing way.
During World War I he served in an ambulance corps at the front, but had to leave owing to ill-health in 1917. Although physically weakened, he produced such successful post-war works as La valse, a sinister work depicting a Viennese ballroom at the end of an era, the almost neo-baroque Le tombeau de Couperin, and L'enfant et les sortilèges, an opera on the theme of childhood. He scornfully remarked of his Boléro, ‘There's not a note of music in it’, but was grateful for its popular success. His last large-scale works were the piano concerto in G and concerto for piano left hand. He made a great reputation and a comfortable living without ever holding an official musical post. In the 1920s he visited London more than once with great success and in 1928 received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. A car accident in 1933 marked the beginning of a long illness, and he died after a brain operation.
WorksStage opera L'heure espagnole (1911); opera-ballet L'enfant et les sortilèges (1925), ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912), also La valse (composed 1919–20; first performance as ballet, 1928).
Orchestral works include Rapsodie espagnole for orchestra (1908), Boléro (1928); concerto for piano and orchestra (1929–31); piano concerto for the left hand with orchestra (1930); several orchestrations of piano works.
Chamber string quartet (1903), Introduction et Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet (1905); piano trio in A minor (1914); sonata for violin and cello (1922), sonata for violin and piano.
Piano 15 piano works including five Miroirs (1905), Gaspard de la nuit (three pieces after Louis Bertrand's prose poems, 1908), suite Le tombeau de Couperin (1917).
Songs 29 songs including the cycles Shéhérazade (1903); Chansons madécasses for voice, flute, cello, and piano (1926); three part songs.
Ravel, (Joseph) Maurice
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