Ravel’s Life and Music

Maurice Ravel

(1875 - 1937)

Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875 in the small village of Ciboure, located at the southwestern tip of France, a short distance from the Spanish border. This location in the Basque Pyrenees would be quite important to the composer and his entire output of musical creations. His mother was of Basque origin, and his father was a Swiss civil engineer. These two elements were to have a profound effect on the life and music of the composer: his mother’s Spanish background is evident throughout the works of Ravel, and his father’s attention to fine detail (he was also an inventor), which was inherited by his son, prompted Igor Stravinsky to dub Ravel “The Swiss Watchmaker”. 

Among his earliest and most treasured memories were the Spanish folk melodies sung to him by his mother, and through her, he inherited a love of the Basque country, its people, and its folklore, as well as a deep sympathy for the music of Spain.  Is it any wonder that many of the major masterpieces of this composer have Spanish roots and themes, such as his opera The Spanish Hour, Bolero (of course), Rapsodie espagnoleHabaneraDon Quichotte à Dulcinée, and numerous other works? 

It is also important to note that Ravel absolutely venerated and adored his mother, and her death proved to be a blow from which the composer never fully recovered (he was basically unable to compose for almost three years thereafter).  Ravel’s attachment to his mother was undoubtedly the deepest emotional tie of his entire life.

Ravel had a happy childhood (he had one brother, Edouard), and when it became clear that Maurice would pursue a career in music, he received unqualified support and encouragement from his family.  Ravel took his first piano lessons at age seven, and at age fourteen he was admitted to the world-famous Paris Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition with Gabriel Fauré.  He began to attract attention as a composer around 1900, when he produced the instantly popular Pavane for a Dead Princess.  Ravel’s highly progressive and individualistic piano writing was also adding to his luster, as can be heard in his famous Jeux d’Eau of 1901. 

From the beginning of his career, Ravel’s name was linked with that of Debussy, a fact that often irked Ravel.  Although Ravel recognized the influence of the older French master on his music, he also averred that many of the “new” piano techniques attributed to Debussy were actually pioneered by himself at an earlier date.  Unlike Debussy, who won the coveted Prix de Rome award at the Conservatory, Ravel tried five times and was never awarded it. This astonishing lack of recognition (by the fifth try he was already an internationally-known composer!) ultimately led to a shake-up of the entire Paris Conservatory and created a major scandal in France.



Ravel’s beloved mother, Marie.

Ravel’s birthplace was Ciboure, located very close to the France-Spain border.

Claude Debussy