On this day in 1875, the great French composer Maurice Ravel was born. What I find fascinating about him is that he is most remembered for Bolero. Yet that piece of music is totally unlike anything else he had done before. What’s more, the work he did throughout his career was incredibly consistent. His melodies were highly modal. And they were supported by complex harmonies. Overall, most people, thinking that Bolero is typical of Ravel, mistake his music for Debussy. And indeed, even though I would never mistake Ravel for Debussy, they are the two major composers that sound most alike.
Here is Ravel’s orchestral arrangement for his solo piano piece Le tombeau de Couperin. It is beautiful and compelling. But most of all, it is entirely typical of his work:
At least it was typical until 1928 when he composed Bolero that must have come as a shock to those who followed his music. It is still a brilliant piece of music. But the main theme, while lovely, is in the major key—not modal at all. Harmonically is is quite simple. Really, other than his use of the woodwinds, it doesn’t sound anything at all like the rest of his work.
And then, there was silence. Ravel completed only a couple more compositions: Piano Concerto in G Major, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (written for Paul Wittgenstein), and Don Quichotte a Dulcinee. He clearly had some kind of brain disease, which caused a shrinking of the left hemisphere, resulting in aphasia. He died as a result of surgery, but had not been able to work for some time and would have died soon regardless.
It has been suggested the the disease was responsible for the more repetitive nature of his last compositions. But we can’t say. The piano concertos were also rather jazzy. Maybe Ravel was just moving in a different direction. Regardless, although the last part of his life was sad, the little music that he produced extends wonderfully on his earlier works. We are so much the better for it.
Happy birthday Maurice Ravel!