Ciboure 1875 – Paris 1937
French, of paternal Swiss and maternal Basque descent, Ravel combined skill in orchestration with meticulous technical command of harmonic resources, writing in an attractive musical idiom that was entirely his own, in spite of contemporary comparisons with Debussy, a composer his senior by some twenty years.
Ravel wrote two operas, the first, described as a comédie-musicale, L’heure espagnole and the second, with a libretto by Colette, the imaginative L’enfant et les sortilèges, in which the naughty child is punished when furniture and animals assume personalities of their own.
Ravel wrote his ballet Daphnis et Chloé in response to a commission from the Russian impresario Dyagilev. The work, described as a symphonie choréographique is based on the Hellenistic pastoral novel of Longus. Ma mère l’oye, originally for piano duet, was orchestrated and used for a ballet, as were the Valses nobles et sentimentales and the choreographic poem La valse. Ravel’s last ballet score was the famous Boléro, a work he himself described as an orchestrated crescendo.
In addition to the scores for ballet and arrangements of Piano music for the same purpose, Ravel wrote an evocative Rapsodie espagnole. Other orchestrations of original piano compositions include a version of the very well known Pavane pour une infante défunte, the Menuet antique, Alborada del gracioso from Miroirs and pieces from Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel wrote two piano concertos, the first, completed in 1930, for the left hand only, commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the war, and the second, completed in 1931, for two hands.
Songs by Ravel include the remarkable Shéhérazade, settings of a text by Tristan Klingsor for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée songs, originally written for a film of Don Quixote in which the famous Russian bass Chaliapin was to star. Songs with piano include settings of the Jules Renard Histoires naturelles, with its instinctive sympathy with the birds and the cricket portrayed.
Ravel’s chamber music includes the evocative nostalgia of the Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, a violin sonata with a jazz-style blues movement, a piano trio and a string quartet. Tzigane, written for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, is a remarkable excursion into extravagant gypsy style.
Ravel was himself a good pianist. His music for the piano includes compositions in his own nostalgic archaic style, such as the Pavane and the Menuet antique, as well as the more complex textures of pieces such as Jeux d’eau, Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit, with its sinister connotations. The Sonatina is in Ravel’s neo-classical style and Le tombeau de Couperin is in the form of a Baroque dance suite.