Maurice Ravel, born Joseph-Maurice Ravel, on March 7 1875, Ciboure, France, was the composer of Swiss-Basque descent, noted for his musical craftsmanship and perfection of form and style in such works as Boléro (1928), Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899; Pavane for a Dead Princess), Rapsodie espagnole (1907), the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (first performed 1912), and the opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925; The Child and the Enchantments).
Opera, Blood, and Tears
The Life You Give: Maurice Ravel
in celebration of his life in music
March 7 at 10:30pm EST
Ravel was born in a village near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, of a Swiss father and a Basque mother. His family background was an artistic and cultivated one, and the young Maurice received every encouragement from his father when his talent for music became apparent at an early age. In 1889, at 14, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he remained until 1905. During this period he composed some of his best known works, including the Pavane for a Dead Princess, the Sonatine for piano, and the String Quartet. All these works, especially the two latter, show the astonishing early perfection of style and craftsmanship that are the hallmarks of Ravel’s entire oeuvre. He is one of the rare composers whose early works seem scarcely less mature than those of his maturity. Indeed, his failure at the Conservatoire, after three attempts, to win the coveted Prix de Rome for composition (the works he submitted were judged too “advanced” by ultraconservative members of the jury) caused something of a scandal. Indignant protests were published, and liberal-minded musicians and writers, including the musicologist and novelist Romain Rolland, supported Ravel. As a result, the director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign, and his place was taken by the composer Gabriel Fauré, with whom Ravel had studied composition.
Ravel was in no sense a revolutionary musician. He was for the most part content to work within the established formal and harmonic conventions of his day, still firmly rooted in tonality—i.e., the organization of music around focal tones. Yet, so very personal and individual was his adaptation and manipulation of the traditional musical idiom that it would be true to say he forged for himself a language of his own that bears the stamp of his personality as unmistakably as any work of Bach or Chopin. While his melodies are almost always modal (i.e., based not on the conventional Western diatonic scale but on the old Greek Phrygian and Dorian modes), his harmonies derive their often somewhat acid flavour from his fondness for “added” notes and unresolved appoggiaturas, or notes extraneous to the chord that are allowed to remain harmonically unresolved. He enriched the literature of the piano by a series of masterworks, ranging from the early Jeux d’eau (completed 1901) and the Miroirs of 1905 to the formidable Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), and the two piano concerti (1931). Of his purely orchestral works, the Rapsodie espagnole and Boléro are the best known and reveal his consummate mastery of the art of instrumentation. But perhaps the highlights of his career were his collaboration with the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, for whose Ballets Russes he composed the masterpiece Daphnis et Chloé, and with the French writer Colette, who was the librettist of his best known opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges. The latter work gave Ravel an opportunity of doing ingenious and amusing things with the animals and inanimate objects that come to life in this tale of bewitchment and magic in which a naughty child is involved. His only other operatic venture had been his brilliantly satirical L’Heure espagnole (first performed 1911). As a songwriter Ravel achieved great distinction with his imaginative Histoires naturelles, Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, and Chansons madécasses.
Ravel’s life was in the main uneventful. He never married, and, though he enjoyed the society of a few chosen friends, he lived the life of a semirecluse at his country retreat at Montfort-L’Amaury, in the forest of Rambouillet, near Paris. He served in World War I for a short time as a truck driver at the front, but the strain was too great for his fragile constitution, and he was discharged from the army in 1917.
In 1928 Ravel embarked on a four months’ tour of Canada and the United States and in the same year visited England to receive an honorary degree of doctor of music from Oxford. That year also saw the creation of Boléro in its original form as a ballet, with Ida Rubinstein in the principal role.
The last five years of Ravel’s life were clouded by aphasia, which not only prevented him from writing another note of music but also deprived him of the power of speech and made it impossible for him even to sign his name. Perhaps the real tragedy of his condition was that his musical imagination remained as active as ever. An operation to relieve the obstruction of a blood vessel that supplies the brain was unsuccessful. Ravel was buried in the cemetery of Levallois, a Paris suburb in which he had lived, in the presence of Stravinsky and other distinguished musicians and composers.
For Ravel, music was a kind of ritual, having its own laws, to be conducted behind high walls, sealed off from the outside world, and impenetrable to unauthorized intruders. When his Russian contemporary Igor Stravinsky compared Ravel to “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers,” he was in fact extolling those qualities of intricacy and precision to which he himself attached so much importance.
By Rollo H. Myers / Source: Britannica
“L’Heure Espagnole” (The Spanish Hour)
Composer: Maurice Ravel
Time: 18th centuryPlace: The workshop of the clockmaker Torquemada in Toledo, Spain.
The opera takes place in 21 scenes, with an introduction.
Torquemada is at work in his shop when the muleteer Ramiro stops by to have his watch fixed, so that he can fulfill his duties at collecting the town’s post. It is Thursday, the day that Torquemada goes out to tend the municipal clocks, so Ramiro must wait. Torquemada’s wife, Concepción, enters to complain that her husband hasn’t yet moved a clock into her bedroom. After Torquemada has left, she takes advantage of his absence to plan assignations with gentleman friends. However, the presence of Ramiro is initially a hindrance. So she asks him to move a grandfather clock to her bedroom, which he agrees to do.
Meanwhile, she waits for Gonzalve, a poet. He arrives, and is inspired to poetry, but not to lovemaking, where Concepción would prefer the latter. When Ramiro is about to return, she sends him back saying that she chose the wrong clock. She then has the idea of having Gonzalve hide in one clock so that Ramiro can carry him upstairs. After Gonzalve is concealed, Don Iñigo, a banker and another of Concepción’s gentleman friends, arrives. When Ramiro returns, she persuades him to carry up the clock with Gonzalve concealed in it, and she accompanies him.
On his own, Don Iñigo conceals himself in another clock. Ramiro enters, asked to watch the shop, and musing on how little he understands of women. Concepción then summons him back upstairs, saying that the clock’s hands are running backwards. She and Don Iñigo try to communicate, but Ramiro arrives back with the other clock. Don Iñigo has hidden himself again, and Ramiro now carries up the clock with Don Iñigo upstairs.
With Gonzalve now downstairs, Concepción tries to turn him away from poetry towards her, but Gonzalve is too absorbed to follow her lead. Ramiro returns, and Gonzalve must conceal himself again. He offers to take the second clock up again. Impressed by how easily Ramiro carries the clocks (and their load) upstairs, Concepción begins to be physically attracted to him.
With Gonzalve and Don Iñigo now each stuck in clocks, Torquemada returns from his municipal duties. Both Gonzalve and Don Inigo eventually escape their respective clock enclosures, the latter with more difficulty. To save face, they each have to purchase a clock. Concepción is now left without a clock, but she muses that she can wait for the muleteer to appear regularly with his watch repaired. The opera ends with a quintet finale, as the singers step out of character to intone the moral of the tale, paraphrasing Boccaccio.
Concepcion — Soprano
Gonzalve — Tenor
Toruemada — Tenor
Ramiro — Baritone
Don Inigo — Bass
“L’enfant et les sortilèges: Fantaisie lyrique en deux parties” (The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts)
Composer: Maurice Ravel
Place: An old-fashioned Normandy country home
This is the story of a rude child who is reprimanded by the objects in his room, which he has been destroying. After being scolded by his mother in the beginning of the opera, the child throws a tantrum, destroying the room around him and harming the animals nearby. He is then surprised to find that the unhappy objects in his room come to life. The furniture and decorations begin to talk; even his homework takes shape as it becomes an old man and a chorus of numbers. They all sing out the pain and misery that the child inflicts on them and their wishes to punish him for his misdeeds.
The bedroom becomes a garden filled with singing animals and plants which have been tortured by the child. The child attempts to make friends with the animals and plants, but they shun him because of the injuries he did to them earlier, before they could talk. They leave him aside, and in his loneliness, he eventually cries out “Maman”. At this, the animals turn on him and attack him in an act of vengeance, but they wind up jostling among each other as the child is tossed aside. At the culmination, a squirrel is hurt, which causes the other animals to stop fighting. The child bandages the squirrel’s wound and collapses exhausted. Seeing this act of kindness, the animals have a change of heart toward the child, and decide to try to help him home. They mimic the cry of “Maman”, carry the child back to his house, and sing in praise of the child. The opera ends with the child singing “Maman”, as he greets his mother, in the very last bar of the score.
– Part one:
Maman, the mother represented by a huge skirt —- contralto
Le fauteuil —- bass
La bergère Louis XV —- soprano
L’horloge comtoise, a clock broken by the child —- baritone
La théière, Wedgwood teapot —- tenor
La tasse chinoise, a broken china cup —- mezzo-contralto
Le feu, the fire in the fireplace coloratura —- soprano
La princesse, the princess torn out of a storybook —- coloratura soprano
Une pastourelle —- soprano
Un pâtre —- contralto
Le petit vieillard, the little old man (representing the torn arithmetic book) —- tenor
Le chat —- baritone
La chatte —- mezzo-soprano
– Part two
La chouette —- soprano
L’arbre, a tree —- bass
La libellule, a dragonfly —- mezzo-soprano
Le rossignol, a nightingale —- coloratura soprano
La chauve-souris, widower bat —- soprano
L’écureuil, a squirrel —- mezzo-soprano
La rainette, the tree frog —- tenor