Maurice Ravel descended from a distinguished lineage of French composers as a student of Gabriel Fauré, himself a pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns. But he was strongly influenced as a young composer by contemporary Russian music, which he heard conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov at the Universal Exposition in 1889. An accomplished pianist and composer of stunningly virtuosic works (for example, Jeux d'eau and Gaspard de la nuit), Ravel is also known for his extraordinary orchestration of works by other composers (Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition) as well as in his own music, especially the ballet score Bolero (1928) and the orchestrations of his piano works Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910), Ma mère l'oye (1911), and the Tombeau de Couperin (1919).
Ravel gained some early renown with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, composing a 1912
ballet on a Greek mythological theme, Daphnis et Chloé. Little is known about
how this score, Ravel's longest, developed, and even less is known about his
compositional process in general, since he made sure to destroy his sketches and
In 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La valse, only to reject the
score. The two never spoke again. Ravel quit Paris for the countryside, but
returned often. With the death of Debussy (whom Ravel knew and respected, though
the two were never close friends), Ravel assumed the position of the leading
composer in France. As a founding member of the Société musicale indépendante
(created with his former teacher Fauré), Ravel actively promoted contemporary
music, and he supported the best of the next generation of French composers,
collectively known as Les Six, including Eric Satie. Ravel toured the United
States to great acclaim in 1928, meeting George Gershwin and absorbing jazz in
Harlem and New Orleans.
A decade later, back in France and suffering the lasting effects of a head
injury sustained in car accident, Ravel subjected himself to brain surgery. He
died not long after, at age 62, and was buried with his family in a cemetery
west of the 17th arrondissement of Paris.
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In his marvelous biographical novel about Ravel, French writer
Jean Echenoz endeavored—in just over 100 pages—to capture the elegant manners
and fastidious habits of the composer. Echenoz devoted discrete chapters to
Ravel’s bathing ritual, his struggles with insomnia, and the elaborate wardrobe
and ablutions he took with him on tour to the United States in 1927.
That same year, Ravel oversaw a recording of a beloved
early work, his String Quartet in F Major, a composition that is no less
mannered than the composer himself.
Puffing cigarettes in the London studio of
the Aeolian recording company, Ravel made sure that the quartet was performed
and recorded by his chosen ensemble, the International Quartet, in a manner
that made it more classical sounding than the notes on the page would suggest.
He wanted it to be restrained, held back, and he stressed precision in the
tempos, melodic phrasing, and harmonic language.
No single pitch could be more important than those
surrounding it. Once this level of exactitude had been reached by the
performers, Ravel gave the recording his seal of approval.
The quartet was old by the time it was recorded. Ravel completed
it in 1903, while still a student of Gabriel Fauré’s at the Paris
Conservatoire, and he hoped that it would earn him a prestigious Rome Prize in
composition. It neither won the prize nor earned him praise from his teacher.
And the reviews were mediocre. Ravel left the Conservatoire in a huff, thus
earning himself the respect of the fickle Parisian public. He admitted that the
quartet had technical problems, but he convinced himself, out of love for the
score, that these could be solved by high-caliber performers.
Ravel treasured the quartet for its classicism, its way of
looking back at and drawing on the past. Of course that past could not be
recovered, and in all of his works, there is a sense of loss. At times the
feeling is wistful, at other times melancholic, even devastating. His String
Quartet in F Major offers all of these sentiments within the constraints of a
four-movement structure that privileges cyclic return.
The first movement is an exquisite reimagining of sonata
form, the three-part structure that governed instrumental music of the late 18th
century. It’s the musical equivalent of a Bildungsroman,
a tale of educational enlightenment. Musical themes are presented, then taken
on an adventure, and finally brought back home again, sadder but wiser. Listen
carefully and you will notice that all of the elements of sonata form are
there, but disarticulated: The harmonies eschew logical patterning; dissonant
pitches are left hanging in the air; and chords of four and five notes
substitute for standard triads. The second movement breaks from the mold of
typical fast-movement forms by referring to fandango guitar playing. The third
movement is a hybrid of instrumental and vocal gestures, its three main
sections interrupted by passages redolent of Fauré’s arias. The fourth
movement, a rondo, recalls the themes of the previous movements to provide
structural cohesion for the quartet as a whole, while complicating its own
Jeremy Geffen introduces Ravel's String Quartet in F Major
The Hagen Quartet performs the third movement from Ravel's String Quartet in F Major.
Ysaÿe String Quartet | Decca
See the Takács Quartet perform Ravel's String Quartet in F Major at Carnegie Hall on April 14.
View a full list of events that are part of A Golden Age of Music >