Best known for his compositions: “Bolero,” “Daphnis and Chloé,” “Rhapsody Espagnol,” “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and his orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Ravel was born in the Basque region of France, near the Spanish border.
Although he didn’t come from a musical family, (his father was an engineer and inventor while his mother was a homemaker), both parents encouraged his early musical training, beginning with piano lessons at age six and giving his first public recital at 14. Although a very talented pianist, he soon developed more of a preference for composing. He was particularly influenced by new works from Rimsky-Korsakov as well as Spanish themes.
He entered the Paris Conservatory, but aside from winning an early prize in a piano competition, he was not a good student academically, didn’t really like the idea of competition and so was expelled a few years later. After some academic time off, he returned to the Conservatory and began studies in composition with Gabriel Fauré.
His first significant work, “Habanera,” which was later worked into his “Rhapsodie Espagnol,” came around this time.
At the turn of the century, Ravel befriended a group of artists, poets, critics and musicians who met frequently to exchange ideas. For a time, the group even included Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla. Ravel composed one of his most memorable works around this time: “Pavanne for a Dead Princess.”
Ravel was short in stature and quite slight of frame, causing one contemporary to describe him as having, “…the appearance of a well-dressed jockey.”
Ravel met and befriended the older Claude Debussy, who’s recently composed “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was very influential on the younger composer.
He composed his first major Spanish-themed work, “Rhapsodie Espagnol,” in 1907. It premiered to very good reviews.
Two years later, he began work on his largest work, the ballet “Daphnis and Chloé” with the lead performed by dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The reception was not a success, closing after only two performances, but revived successfully a year later, with Igor Stravinsky claiming it to be, “…one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”
Ravel was too small in stature for military service in WW I. He composed few works during the war years, but did write one of his most popular works during this time, “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”
Post-war Paris brought American jazz influences to Ravel as with many composers in Europe at the time.
In 1922, Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” which brought him great fame and substantial financial gains.
He made his first American tour in 1928 for which he was paid $10,000.00 (approximately $128,000 today adjusted for inflation). His concerts on this tour regularly received standing ovations. He met Gershwin during this tour, became fast friends and toured NY City jazz clubs together. Gershwin asked if he could become a student of Ravel’s, to which Ravel replied: “Why would you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”
After returning to France, Ravel wrote his most famous work, “Boléro.” He was rather taken aback by the success of it, once stating it was, “…18 minutes of orchestra without any music.”
In 1932, he suffered a blow to the head in a taxicab accident. After a long period of illness, he underwent experimental brain surgery, awoke briefly after the operation, then lapsed into a coma and died in 1937.
Ravel never married nor had any intimate or romantic relationship during his life. He once said, "The only love affair I have ever had was with music"