Maurice Ravel - Bolero - Herbert von Karajan 1985 - Part I
His father's background was Swiss and his mother's Basque, but he was brought up in Paris, where he studied at the Conservatoire, 1889-95, returning in 1897 for further study with Fauré and Gédalge. In 1893 he met Chabrier and Satie, both of whom were influential. A decade later he was an established composer, at least of songs and piano pieces, working with luminous precision in a style that could imitate Lisztian bravura (Jeux d'eau) or Renaissance calm (Pavane pour une infante défunte); there was also the String Quartet, somewhat in the modal style of Debussy's but more ornately instrumented. However, he five times failed to win the Prix de Rome (1900-05) and left the Conservatoire to continue his life as a freelance musician.
During the next decade, that of his 30s, he was at his most productive. There was a rivalry with Debussy and some dispute about priority in musical discoveries, but Ravel's taste for sharply defined ideas and closed formal units was entirely his own, as was the grand virtuosity of much of his piano music from this period, notably the cycles Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit. Many works also show his fascination with things temporally or geographically distant, with moods sufficiently alien to be objectively drawn: these might be historical musical styles, as in the post-Schubertian Valses nobles et sentimentales, or the imagination of childhood, as in Ma mère l'oye. Or the composer's inspection might be turned on the East (Shéhérazade) or, as happened repeatedly, on Spain (Rapsodie espagnole, the comic opera L'heure espagnole). Or there might be a double focus, as in the vision of ancient Greece through the modification of 18th century French classicism in the languorous ballet Daphnis et Chloé, written for Dyagilev.
The Ballets Russes were also important in introducing him to Stravinsky, with whom he collaborated on a version of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, and whose musical development he somewhat paralleled during the decade or so after The Rite of Spring. The set of three Mallarmé songs with nonet accompaniment were written partly under the influence of Stravinsky's Japanese Lyrics and Schönberg's Pierrot lunaire and the two sonatas of the 1920s can be compared with Stravinsky's abstract works of the period in their harmonic astringency and selfconscious use of established forms. However, Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, just as selfconscious, predates Stravinsky's neo-classicism, and the pressure of musical history is perhaps felt most intensely in the ballet La valse, where 3/4 rhythm develops into a dance macabre: both these works, like many others, exist in both orchestral and piano versions, testifying to Ravel's superb technique in both media (in 1922 he applied his orchestral skills tellingly to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition). Other postwar works return to some of the composer's obsessions: with the delights and dangers of the child's world in the sophisticated fantasy opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, with musical Spanishness in Bolero and the songs for a projected Don Quixote film, and with the exotic in the Chansons madécasses. His last major effort was a pair of piano concertos, one exuberant and cosmopolitan (in G Major), the other (for left hand only) more darkly and sturdily single-minded. He died after a long illness.
Extracted with permission from
The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music
edited by Stanley Sadie
© Macmillan Press Ltd., London.