Portrait de Maurice Ravel dans les années 1920.
Portrait de Maurice Ravel dans les années 1920. © Getty

10 (little) you (perhaps) do not know about Maurice Ravel

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the tests for the Baccalauréat in France in 2017, the perfect occasion to learn about ten little anecdotes on the composer’s life and work.

This man who could not say a word that would go beyond the bar was always ready to receive the affection in all of its exuberance. [...] Some accused him of being indifferent, incapable of making out, beneath his modest hesitation, the warmth of friendship.” 

It is with those words that the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange described her friend Maurice Ravel, a discreet and elegant character. But beyond that apparent sobriety, a strong, cautious and funny nature was hiding.

Rares sont les photographies de Ravel sans une cigarette à la main. De tempérament nerveux, il fumait beaucoup et souffrait régulièrement d'insomnies.
Rares sont les photographies de Ravel sans une cigarette à la main. De tempérament nerveux, il fumait beaucoup et souffrait régulièrement d'insomnies. © Getty

To pass the Baccalauréat Ravel exam or to shine in social events, here are ten little anecdotes on the French composer’s life who was born in 1875 and died on the 28th of December 1937 at the age of 62 years old.

Basque roots

Maurice Ravel was born in Cibourne in the Basque Country. His father was Swiss and is mother Spanish Basque. The composer’s inclination towards the Hispanic sounds is often explained by this filiation… Yet the young Maurice lived only for a few months on the Basque soil seeing as his parents moved to Paris the year following his birth.

The young man’s company are maybe a better explanation for his curiosity towards the Spanish culture. At the Paris Conservatoire, he became friends with the pianist Ricardo Viñes. He also met Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla, two Spanish composers whose works were inspired by their natal country.

Far from being a perfect student 

Maurice Ravel joined the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 in order to study the piano and harmony. If his teachers unanimously praised his talent, he didn’t get any prize or distinction during his first years, which lead him to give up his studies at the time. 

 In 1898, he was admitted again at the Conservatoire to study in Gabriel Fauré’s composition class. Once more, he didn’t win any prize and had to leave the class. Fauré had nevertheless noticed that student “talented and constant” who seemed more interested by Edgar Poe’s poems or by Stéphane Mallarmé than by his studies

Four failures at the Prix de Rome

Motivated by his composition teacher Gabriel Fauré who encouraged him, and by the prospect of a financial reward – his situation was delicate at the time – Ravel stood five times in front of the Prix de Rome composition jury between 1900 and 1905.

If he won second place in 1901 with his cantata Myrrha, he failed every other time. The jury thought his style was too audacious, unsuited for the exercise… But the young composer had already at the time a strong reputation and that non-recognition angered his supporters. The polemic grew so much that it got the attention of the press. It was the starting point of L’affaire Ravel.

Extrait du journal Le Matin du 22 mai 1905.
Extrait du journal Le Matin du 22 mai 1905.  /  Bibliothèque nationale de France

The man with (musical) scandals 

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the composers put famous poets’ words (Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine…) into music. But Ravel chose Histoires Naturelles from Jules Renard. The subject? Animals: ducks, turkeys and pigeons… 

The first representation of Histoires Naturelles chocked the Parisian public and even more so the members of the Société Nationale de Musique. How did Ravel dare compose from such trivial and prosaic subjects?

There was another object of scandal: the popular pronunciation and the singing too close of talking. For example, Ravel kept the elisions in Renard’s words, which means some vowels were not said (like the “e” in the word “presqu”)… A café-concert practice!

Exempted of his military service

Too frail, too small: Maurice Ravel was exempted of his military service due to his fragile morphology. Not that he wanted to avoid the military commitment, au contraire. When the First World War started, the composer yearned for only one thing: joining the front.

Rejected by the aviation, he finally succeeded in joining the army as a truck driver in March 1916. In the letters he wrote to his parents, “Driver Ravel” (as he called himself) told them about the incidents he had with his track “Adelaïde”. Those adventures would not last long as the musician got sick in September of the same year and had to come back to Paris.

Member of the Apaches

There are the Apaches from Northern America, Indian tribes known for their courage and their craftiness. There are also the Parisians Apaches who were gangs acting in the capitol’s streets during the Belle Époque. And there is the Société des Apaches, an artistic group born shortly after 1900 of which Ravel was a member.

The poet Léon-Paul Fargue, the composers Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, Albert Roussel, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Delage. All of them were members of that artistic circle called “The Apaches”, symbol of the intellectual et cultural effervescence that agitated Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.

Le Paris dans lequel évoluent Ravel et ses amis est foisonnant. En 1900 a notamment lieu la plus grande Exposition universelle française.
Le Paris dans lequel évoluent Ravel et ses amis est foisonnant. En 1900 a notamment lieu la plus grande Exposition universelle française.  © Getty

On bad terms with Debussy

Ravel never hid his admiration for Claude Debussy’s work, his fellow and older composer. The two of them shared a few sources of inspiration (the aquatic atmosphere, the Spanish folklore, a sense of humour…) and a few personality traits (thirst for independence, difficulties when faced with the strict and academic settings of the institutions such as the Conservatoire).

They were introduced in 1901 and got along until 1905 when a tension rose between the two composers. The rumour told in Paris at the time said that Ravel was upset with Debussy because he took his Habanera theme to compose La soirée Dans Grenade.

But it is only a rumour. It seems this enmity between Ravel and Debussy was mainly due to divergent opinions. Even just on a musical level Debussy didn’t hesitate to criticise Ravel’s work, too artificial for his taste: 

What annoys me is his posture as a trick maker or better, as a Fakir charmer who can make flowers grow around a chair” (Letter from Claude Debussy to Jacques Durand, 25th of January 1907)

Claude Debussy en 1900.
Claude Debussy en 1900. © Getty

He refused the Legion of Honour 

In 1920, Maurice Ravel heard he was to receive the Legion of Honour. It is the highest French decoration and the composer refused it in a second.

He said “Agreeing in getting a decoration it’s acknowledging that the State or the Prince has the right to judge you”. If the exact reason is still unknown, it is accepted that Ravel was a freethinker, undisposed with nationalist ideas.

Incidentally during the First World War, when a lot of his contemporaries protested against the distribution of Austro-German pieces, Maurice Ravel advocated for internationalism, saying:

I do not care that M. Schoenberg for example is of Austrian nationality. He remains nevertheless a musician of great value whose researches are most interesting and had a fortunate influence on some of our allied composers and within our boarders”.

Eternal bachelor

The mystery around Maurice Ravel’s love life remains unsolved. He had some very close female friends such as the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange – his Sonate pour violon in 1927 is dedicated to her – or the dancer Ida Rubinstein for whom he composed his Bolero but we have no information on any relation or romance he might have had.

La danseuse et mécène russe Ida Rubinstein est l'une des plus grandes icônes féminines de la Belle Epoque.
La danseuse et mécène russe Ida Rubinstein est l'une des plus grandes icônes féminines de la Belle Epoque.  © Getty

Ravel lived and grew old as a single man. When he needed to escape the Parisian life, he went on his own to the Basque Country and stayed with his friends Ida and Cyprien Godebski at their country house.

Sad last years

From the summer 1933, his health started to deteriorate. He suffered from speech and writing disorders. He was thereafter unable to compose or play even if his intellectual capacities were intact.

In December 1937 he grudgingly agreed a surgery in case he had a brain tumour. He survived the surgery but fell into a coma a few days later and never woke up. He died on the 28th of December, 1933 at the age of 62 years old.

Maurice Ravel assis en terrasse d'un café parisien avec un ami, en 1930.
Maurice Ravel assis en terrasse d'un café parisien avec un ami, en 1930. © Getty
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