Our Poulenc mini festival celebrates the life and times of Francis Poulenc, but tomorrow, City of London Sinfonia will be giving a nod to another Frenchman. Maurice Ravel, Poulenc’s predecessor and one of France’s best loved composers, was one of the biggest Impressionists going. Ahead of our performance of Ravel’s Pavane at Southwark Cathedral, we consider the man behind the music.
“The only love affair I have ever had was with music.”
Name: Joseph-Maurice Ravel
Birth and Death: Born in 1875 and died 1937 aged 62
Background: Born near the town of Biarritz to a Spanish mother and a Swiss father, Ravel was raised in Paris where he was exposed to a great variety of composers, writers and thinkers. From an early age, Ravel was very much encouraged to pursue his musical talents and ended up at the Conservatoire de Paris, studying piano. Footloose and fancy free, and noted for his meticulous appearance, young Ravel was interested in good food, fine wines and socialising. After eventually being expelled from the conservatoire, Ravel continued his studies under the guidance of Gabriel Fauré, with whom he remained lifelong friends.
Around 1900, Ravel joined a group of progressive young artists, poets, critics and musicians who were referred to as the “Apaches” (hooligans). During his time with the group, Ravel wrote some of his first breakthrough pieces, including Jeux d’eau and the Pavane. Ravel reached the peak of his productivity during his 30s, composing many complex piano pieces that saw him develop a distinctive “impressionist” style. A commission from the Ballet Russes introduced Ravel to Stravinsky and during this time, Ravel composed his seminal Le tombeau de Couperin and orchestrated Musorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition. The Boléro was also composed during this time and reflects the Spanish influence of Ravel’s mother, that can been seen throughout his body of work.
Ravel died in Paris, France, on December 28, 1937.
Breakthrough Moment: After taking Paris by storm the previous year, French ballet titan Diagalev commissioned Ravel to write a piece for his company, the Ballet Russes, in 1909. The compositional process was riddled with conflicts amongst its creators and Daphnis et Chloé took Ravel almost three years to complete. Although the ballet was panned at its premiere, receiving only two performances, it later went on to become the jewel in Ravel’s crown with Igor Stravinsky hailing the work as “one of the most beautiful products of all French music”.