Favorite Musicians

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, the Basque region of France. His father, a Swiss civil engineer, used to take him to visit factories and from these outings the young Ravel developed a lifelong fascination for machines. Years later, Ravel described a factory he visited in Germany as “a wonderful symphony of assembly lines, whistles, and terrific hammer blows… What music there is in all this, and I certainly plan to use it.”

Mechanical or technical precision is evident throughout Ravel’s work. Igor Stravinsky called him a “Swiss watchmaker.” Ravel himself said, “Conscience compels us to turn ourselves into good craftsmen. My objective, therefore, is technical perfection… The truth is one can never have enough control.”

Ravel and Stravinsky

Ravel and Stravinsky

Ravel was also influenced by Edgar Allen Poe and even credited Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” as his most important lesson in composition. There Poe states that, “Every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.” Ravel took the same approach, working everything out in his head before writing it down. In fact, when his friend Maurice Delage asked about the piano trio Ravel had been planning but had not yet started to write, the composer answered, “My Trio is finished. I only need the themes for it.” Although Ravel was joking, the remark was probably true; he would have thought through the style of the piece and its formal structure. The only things missing would have been the melodies that would bring the piece to life.

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe

Eugene Lehner, who had been the violist in the Kolish Quartet, told me (Sharan) an interesting story about Ravel. The ensemble was to play Ravel’s quartet at a gathering that the composer would be attending. They worked with a vengeance, making good use of the metronome. (Ravel marked his scores very carefully – with metronome markings for every section. The tempo can change frequently… several times on each page.) At the performance they hadn’t played through more than one page before Ravel came up and stopped them. He insisted on shaking each player by the hand, saying it was the first time he had heard the piece played properly. This story and many other things we know about Ravel make it clear that he was serious about his meticulous score markings. They are an essential part of the interpretation process, providing an excellent way to get to the heart of his music.

Ravel was proud of his Basque heritage (his mother was Basque) and its influence can be heard in the Trio for violin, cello and piano (1914) where the first movement has a rhythm inspired by the zortziko, a Basque dance in 5/8. (The zortziko is also an asymmetrical poetic form.) Although the movement is written in 8/8 (eight eighth notes to the measure), each measure is subdivided into three groups – 3/2/3 – throughout.

Zorziko

The asymmetrical effect is wonderfully graceful and flowing. At the first performance in the spring of 1915, writer Charles DuBos remembered that the “entire small group of listeners marveled at the first movement’s opening phrase, not only the jewel of the work, but equal in the domain of pure beauty to any masterpiece of Persian or Japanese art.” Ravel told violinist Helene Jourdan-Morhange that the little notes leading to violin’s singing phrase should be treated “like a Hawaiian guitar’s glissando.” The second movement is titled ‘Pantoum’ and is built on a Malaysian poetic form of the same name that was popular with the French Romantic poets In Europe the pantoum was expanded from its original quatrain (four lines) to more complex forms. Ravel actually follows this expanded form with his music. He uses two alternating and contrasting ideas: the first staccato, dry and uneven; the second a sweeping waltz. They interrupt each other with increasing frequency as the movement nears its end, where they are finally played simultaneously with a bravura flourish. The third movement, ‘Passacaille,’ calls to mind the chanting of an ancient and solemn procession. As it draws near, it increases in volume and intensity then recedes into the distance. In the shimmering finale Ravel said the pianist must “play the star, and give trumpet accents to his fanfares.”

  • Learn more about Ravel…
  • Recommended Reading: Maurice Ravel: A Life, by Benjamin Ivry. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers. 2000.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Trio for violin, cello and piano (1914)

II. Pantoum: Assez vif

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IV. Final: Animé

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