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A Moderne Master

‘Who can unravel Ravel?’

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Ravel was born in 1875 in the Basque village of Ciboure, the first child of Pierre Joseph Ravel, a Swiss engineer, and his Basque wife Marie Delouart. Although the Ravels soon moved to Paris, Maurice retained much of his mother’s love for Basque language and culture, and things exotic. Ravel showed early signs of musical talent and entered the Paris Conservatoire as a piano student, at age 14, in 1889. There he made notable progress, winning his first medal when he was 16 and eventually gaining the opportunity to study composition with Gabriel Fauré and counterpoint with André Gedalge, two of the institution’s most venerable instructors. A series of increasingly brilliant works followed in rapid succession: the Shéhérazade overture in 1898, Pavane pour une infante défunte in 1899, and finally, in 1901, the remarkable Jeux d’eau, the piano piece that marked Ravel as cofounder, with Claude Debussy, of musical impressionism.

But as Nichols underscores, the Conservatoire’s top prize, the coveted Prix de Rome, remained elusive. Ravel won second place in 1901 but his other attempts—there were four more—were unsuccessful. In the final try of 1905 Ravel was eliminated in the preliminaries, and when a subsequent investigation revealed that the six finalists were all pupils of a jury-panel member, the head of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign. Ravel stayed above the fray and quickly moved on to new works. But “L’affaire Ravel,” as the event came to be known, marked the young composer as a figure outside the establishment.

A central premise of Nichols’s account is that Ravel remained an outsider, despite the success of his compositions. He simply didn’t fit in. A dapper dresser, he practiced the life of a cultivated dandy, immaculately attired and meticulous about his appearance. Ravel was known for his cold, emotionless greetings and his clinical manner of playing and conducting. He had a wide circle of friends but no intimate attachments other than his strong tie to his mother. He lived at home with her until her death, moving into a house of his own only at age 45. And Le Belvédère was well distanced from Paris, lying 30 miles to the southwest in the small village of Montfort l’Amaury.

Ravel never married, and he seemed most comfortable in the company of male companions such as the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes (who premiered many of the piano works) and the sculptor Léon Leyritz (who accompanied Ravel on trips late in life). He was very happy to help the governess of Ida and Cipa Godebski look after their children, or play water war as a 50-year-old with a young Charles Harding (“Jeux d’eau,” he explained to Harding’s parents). Nicholas concludes that Ravel was not gay but sexually neutral, a creative artist who retained many of the childlike qualities that he portrayed in his music.

Also contributing to Ravel’s youthful image was his physique: He was thin and somewhat frail (he was judged underweight for normal military service in World War I and enlisted as an ambulance driver) and only five-foot-three. (“I was told to expect a grand master,” quipped the proprietor of the Salle Pleyel in Paris after meeting Ravel, “but I could only see 50 centimeters!”) And professionally, Ravel was a maverick, forming the Société musicale indépendante in 1909 to oppose the staid Société nationale de musique, and declining the Légion d’honneur when it was offered to him in 1920.

A great strength of Ravel is its vivid portrayal of musical life in turn-of-the-century Paris. Just as Vienna had been the indisputable center of European musical life in the 19th century, Paris emerged in the 20th as its worthy successor, hosting a vast array of composers, both native and foreign. Music was performed, discussed, and written about to an unprecedented degree. Even Ravel, normally reticent to engage in public discussion, served for a time as a music critic for the Cahiers d’aujourd’hui. Audiences flocked to hundreds of theater, dance, and opera productions, concerts, and cabaret performances. At its peak, Paris featured more than 200 café concerts alone. This feverish focus on the arts survived the Great War and the Great Depression, losing its strength only in the 1930s when the cinema began to replace live art as the favored entertainment. Nichols tracks Ravel’s schedule and shows the extraordinary extent to which he and other musicians attended and participated in convention-breaking events on an almost weekly basis. (Ravel’s innovative opera Daphnis et Chloé made little impression on its opening night because Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, with Nijinsky’s risqué choreography, had premiered just 10 days earlier.)

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