- Maurice Ravel - The Swiss Watchmaker of Music [Biography]
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Maurice Ravel

"I am not one of the great composers. All the great have produced enormously. There is everything in their work -- the best and the worst, but there is always quantity. But I have written relatively very little . . . and at that, I did it with a great deal of difficulty. I did my work slowly, drop by drop. I have torn all of it out of me by pieces. . . and now I cannot do any more, and it does not give me any pleasure."

Everyone knows Ravel's Bolero, but his talent extended much further than this one popular piece. Some of his output is very Impressionistic, evoking images of mood and places, while others express his love of fairy tales and fantasy. Still others are inspired by his delight in clocks and mechanical toys. Regardless of his theme, Ravel always wrote superbly for the orchestra and piano, using harmonies that were both ravishing and subtle.

Though Maurice Ravel became closely associated with Paris, he was not actually born there. He was born on 7 March, 1875 in Ciboure, France (the heart of Basque country in southwestern France). He was the son of a Franco-Swiss engineer and a Basque mother. The family moved to Paris when he was 3 months old. He began his musical studies at the age of 7, and entered the Paris Conservatoire de Musique at 14. He continued his studies under composer Gabriel Fauré in 1897.

Very much the "man about town" he became the darling of Parisian café society. He joined a group of like-minded young artists in Paris, whose regular meetings gave them the chance to discuss ideas and collaborate on projects.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Ravel (together with Debussy) created a style of music partly inspired by the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet. As a result, France became one of the most exciting musical countries in the world.

Then, at about the same time that Debussy died in 1918, Ravel's own styles changed quite dramatically. His music became generally sparer in tone and more abstract in character, much closer to the neo-classical styles of Stravinsky and other composers of the period. Like them, Ravel used early jazz harmonies and rhythms to colour his musical works.Throughout his changing styles, however, Ravel remained a master of orchestral and piano writing, with a harmonic style, or musical language, instantly recognisable as his own.

Stravinsky once described Ravel as "the Swiss watchmaker" of music, because of Ravel's painstaking attention to detail. Ravel himself described a work of art as "a ripened conception where no detail has been left to chance". And so it was that he developed his own method of composing, which was central to his style. He perfected small, self-contained "blocks" of music, then assembled them into larger, more complex structures - much like the many moving parts of a watch. Thus it was that he earned Stravinsky's approval.

In 1921, the French government finally decided to recognise Ravel's achievements by awarding him the much-prized Légion d'Honneur. Unfortunately, the award was announced publicly before Ravel himself had been informed of the decision and he promptly declined to accept it. One honour he did accept, however, was an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1931.

Although Ravel travelled abroad in his youth, it was not until he was in his fifties that he ventured across the Atlantic. His four-month tour of the U.S. in 1928 was an enormous success: His numerous concerts and piano recitals received an enthusiastic reception, and he was introduced to celebrities from the worlds of art and show business (including George Gershwin, whose work he much admired). Ravel's trip across America must have been hard work, but in fact he found that it had one unexpected benefit: A long-time insomniac, he confessed that travelling on the long-distance overnight trains gave him the best night's sleep that he'd had since childhood.

Ravel began to show signs of neurological problems in 1927, and over the next few years he suffered from muscle problems and aphasia. He began to show signs of dementia, and a car crash in 1932 worsened those symptoms. Over the next few years, he lost all ability to communicate (either through speech, reading or writing). On 28 December, 1937, the man considered to be one of the most original and influential composers of the twentieth century died in Paris after an unsuccessful brain operation.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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