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Music History

Who was Maurice Ravel? A Brief Introduction

February 5, 2024

One of the most sophisticated musicians of the early 20th century, Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, France. Showing great musical promise as a child, he began his piano studies at the Paris Conservatoire when he was just 14 years old. Ravel remained a Conservatoire student off and on for 14 years, adding composition classes with the renowned Gabriel Fauré.

Ravel enthusiastically sought out experiences with a wide range of music, attending performances, for example, at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, where he heard a Javanese gamelan, Russian music by Rimsky-Korsakov, and more. He also joined Les Apaches, a group of literary, musical, and artistic contemporaries which openly shared and discussed a range of cultural topics and trends.

Impressionist Style

The term Impressionism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and was originally applied to French painting. Impressionism originated from Claude Monet’s 1873 work Impression, soleil levant, and it was attributed to such artists as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne.

The term was later applied, metaphorically and at first pejoratively, to music by composers such as Ravel and Claude Debussy, whose sonic innovations seemed to echo the visual innovations of Impressionist painters. Both composers objected to the label.


Notable Works

Boléro (1928)

This popular orchestral work is not only performed frequently on the concert stage, but is also used in film and television, including The Three Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930), Blake Edwards’s comedic film 10 (1979) starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek, and BBC’s Doctor Who (2006). 

Many have noted that despite the title, the rhythms are more similar to dances such as the fandango and seguidilla. It also features solo opportunities for a large number of instruments, including alto saxophone.

L’enfant et les sortileges (1925)

This opera was a collaboration between Ravel and legendary French novelist, Colette. It’s a children’s story about a rude young boy who is chastised by the objects in his room for his bad behavior. It features massive set pieces that immerse the audience in the main character’s youthful perspective.

String Quartet in F major (1903)

Ravel submitted this quartet to the Prix de Rome, and although it didn’t win, it is now considered one of his masterpieces and a staple of chamber music repertoire. Dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, the work features pizzicato, a technique in which musicians pluck the strings of their instruments, as well as a wonderful use of tone color.