You are here

Composer of the Month: Maurice Ravel

Features - Classical Music

Composer of the Month: Maurice Ravel

by Gerald Larner on August 30, 2017 (August 30, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Was Ravel’s music affected by external events and, eventually, mental illness? Absolutely not, says Gerald Larner.

Lived 1875 – 1937
Mostly in Paris
Best Known for Boléro, Daphnis et Chloé, Ma Mére L'Oye, Piano Concertos, La ValseGaspard de la Nuit.
Similar to Debussy


“My only mistress is music”

Ravel’s declaration of absolute fidelity to his art must be a paramount consideration in any discussion of any aspect of his creativity or his personality – not just his sexuality, favourite subject for speculation though that is. Music was his life, his passion, and nothing would induce him to sell it short by producing a score of less than complete integrity and less than perfect finish. There is scarcely one Ravel work that is not wholly comprehensible in musical terms or that requires reference to external circumstances to explain it. Do we learn anything from the notion, quoted with apparent approval by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise, that the Toccata of Le Tombeau de Couperin “is meant to suggest the twisting motion of a fighter plane”? I think not.

RavelMaurice Ravel

That sort of thing is harmless, however, in comparison with the damage that can be caused to our perception of Ravel’s music by subjecting it to pathological examination. Recently, much clinical attention has been devoted to tracing the progress of the disease that was to lead to the composer’s death, at the age of 62, in 1937. The French writer Jean Echenoz is so fascinated by the subject that in 2006 he published a novel about it. His Ravel is redolent of research at Le Belvédère, the Ravel house at Montfort-l’Amaury, and yet so faulty in biographical and musicological detail that it carries little credibility as either fact or fiction.

Of course, if there are signs of mental decay in such works as Boléro and the Concerto in D for piano left hand – two of the greatest orchestral works in the 20th-century repertoire and at the same time two of the most commonly chosen subjects for neurological case study – we should not shrink from learning about them. But anyone who takes the risk of associating these masterpieces with an unsound mind should be very certain of the facts. From a purely clinical point of view, for example, it might make sense to advance the theory that the repetitions in Boléro are symptomatic of frontotemporal dementia. There are, on the other hand, overwhelmingly convincing biographical and musical reasons to reject such a distressing idea.

Not compulsive but coolly deliberate, the repetitive pattern of Boléro is an inspired solution to a professional problem. Having set aside just enough time to orchestrate a selection of piano pieces by Albéniz for a ballet score on a Spanish theme, Ravel found that the arrangement rights had been reserved for his Spanish colleague Enrique Arbós. He first panicked and then conceived the idea of creating a score that would take no longer to complete than an exercise in orchestration. Once he had invented the appropriately Spanish-coloured melodic material, he was up and running. “Don’t you think this tune has something insistent about it?” he asked a friend while playing it for him with one finger on the piano. “I’m going to try and repeat it a good few times without any development while gradually building it up with my very best orchestration.”

Boléro is a miracle of originality which is not only hypnotic but also calculated in construction. Just when the energy it has so inexorably generated can no longer be contained it explodes into the work’s only modulation in the closing bars. There is nothing sinister, as neurologists and even some musicologists believe, about such a  masterfully engineered climax. What was Ravel to do otherwise? Was he to court anti-climax by means of a reverse progression, receding from a full-orchestral fortissimo to pianissimo flute and side drum? Or was he to conclude with this dramatic, if catastrophic, gesture?

RavelRavel in New York with Oskar Fried, Éva Gauthier, Manoah Leide-Tedesco and George Gershwin, 1928

If Ravel had ever demonstrated obsessively repetitive behaviour in his everyday life and if he were not still to write three works which betray no such thing – the two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte songs – there would be something in the Boléro-as-dementia theory. In fact, it is as unreasonable as diagnosing dementia in the apparently even more obsessive minimalist composers of today.

When it comes to the Left-hand Piano Concerto, an oddly persistent old theory, that it indicates that one side of the composer’s brain was not functioning, is easily disposed of. It was written for left hand only because it had been commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. Even so, commentators insist on finding something sinister about it. The character of the work was determined at least partly, however, by technical considerations. Writing a piano concerto largely for the lower part of the solo instrument, Ravel was bound to produce a dark-coloured score – and not only in the piano part. As the work begins, with a low rumble on cellos and basses and then a double-bassoon solo, he introduces the orchestra as, in a sense, left-handed too.

It is true that Ravel is on record as expressing the opinion that “the music of a concerto should be light-hearted and brilliant and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects”. But, working at much the same time on the “light-hearted and brilliant” Piano Concerto in G, the professional in him knew that he had to produce something different. The Concerto in G might, as he said, be “more Ravel” but the Concerto in D proved to be a far greater contribution to Wittgenstein’s left-hand repertoire than anything the pianist got from such mentally unscathed composers as Richard Strauss, Prokofiev and Britten.

Of course, Ravel did suffer mental and physical traumas profound enough to affect both his personality and work. We will probably never know what happened to him in his early youth to convince him that, as he told pianist Marguerite Long, “love never rises above licentiousness”. We do, however, know about the dangers, illnesses and deprivations he experienced as a soldier at Verdun. Le Tombeau de Couperin and La Valse – the latter of which begins like the Left-Hand Concerto in the darkest depths of the orchestra and ends as catastrophically as Boléro – bear those marks.

Laurent Pelly’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, Rome, 2014. Photo © Laura Ferrari

Another wartime misfortune was the death of his mother in 1917, causing him inconsolable grief. She, the great love of his life and the source of his affection for all things Basque and most things Spanish, meant even more to him than his father. And yet, perhaps because of Stravinsky’s description of Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss watch-makers”, his father – who was indeed Swiss but a motor engineer rather than a watch-maker – has been presented as the more important hereditary influence.

The conflict between what Maurice saw as his duty to stay with his mother and his patriotic duty to enlist in the defence of his country in 1914, a conflict reflected in the Piano Trio, was probably the most intense emotional crisis in his life. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, which he began to write after her death, could thus be seen as a confession of both guilt and love.

It would be a sort of betrayal to see it that way, however. Ravel’s whole career was devoted to creating music from which the self was excluded. He was no self-revealing Schumann or Janácˇek. He would deny his own inclinations, as he did when he suppressed his innate ‘pudeur’ (prudity) to create the erotic atmosphere of Daphnis et Chloé.

RavelDaphnis et Chloé at Paris National Opera. Photo © Agathe Poupeney.

The thought that any sign of dementia had intruded on his work would have horrified Ravel. Happily, it never did. Or as a musically aware neurologist recently said of the Piano Concerto in G: “If that was the product of a sick brain there should be more of that sickness in the world”.


Early Days

“It was the clicking and roaring of my father’s machines which, with the Spanish folk songs sung to me by my mother, formed my first instruction in music!” said Ravel. To understand that – the fine-tooled precision on the one hand, the melodic impulse on the other – is to understand much that is fundamental to his creativity.

Short Story

“All the great composers were small.” A highly dubious proposition from Ravel, it is a nonetheless significant indication of how conscious he was of a below-average (5ft 3ins) stature he was determined to transcend – not, usually, by forcing himself to expand the small-scale constructions that were natural to him but by extending their expressive scope far beyond their apparent limits.

Basque Passion

“Look, they say I’m dry at heart. That’s wrong... I’m a Basque. Basques feel things violently but they say little about it.” While there are works as gentle as the Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, there is nothing at all dry, while – in Gaspard de la Nuit, for example, and particularly in post-war works like La Valse and the left-hand Concerto – there is much that is violently passionate.

A Sad End

“I still have so much music in my head... I haven’t said anything yet and I still have so much to say.” The image of Ravel in his last years, rendered incapable of writing by apraxia and sitting ‘waiting’ by the window at his home in Montfort-l’Amaury, is as poignant as any associated with a composer severed by disability from his art.


The Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University will perform Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges at the Conservatorium Theatre, September 1 – 5. Sophie Rowell and Kristian Chong perform Ravel’s Violin Sonata at Melbourne Recital Centre, September 4. The Debussy Quartet performs Ravel’s String Quartet in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, September 16 – 19. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs La Valse and the Piano Concerto with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, September 21 – 23. Asher Fisch’s recording of L’Heure Espagnole is out now on BR Klassik