The beautiful, quiet and sophisticated revolution of Maurice Ravel

I love the music of Maurice Ravel. And when you love something, I guess you try to spread your passion to others, in some way or another. In this case, that way is a conscious one: I have decided, through this post, to introduce you to the magnificent oeuvre of Ravel.

Maurice Ravel, like the rest of the so-called “realists”, Bartók and
Janáček, didn’t have urban origins -he was born in a small town called Ciboure. This location, placed in the French Basque country, determined Ravel’s unique musical discourse: a stylized, sophisticated amalgam of Hispanic and Gallic sonorities.

According to Alex Ross, Ravel’s first piano works “carried out a kind of velvet revolution, renewing the language of music without disturbing the peace”. Ravel was, then, a particular revolutionary –a quiet one. This single feature, in my opinion, acts a curse in disguise for his legacy. I strongly believe Ravel’s music has been unjustly underestimated. Although many remarkable composers cite him as an influence (Stravinsky, Messiaen, Copland, Piazzolla), with the exception of his Boléro, his music isn’t that frequently played in the orchestral circuit.

Nonetheless, that condition responds to his own nature. Ravel was known to be quite charming when in contact with others, but he also was a shy and lonely individual. His humble character didn’t allow him to have great ambitions for his music. Besides, he wasn’t particularly prolific. Notwithstanding, that same austerity injected such appealing glamour to his music.

Scholars and historians have often considered Ravel as the most pure French composer, a statement that stands on the French quality of his music, one that certainly inherits the three features of French culture: an elegant overall tone, plenty of graceful moments, and the superb clarity of his masterful orchestration (Leonard Bernstein once hailed Boléro as “the bible of orchestration”.
 And if you need to further prove Ravel's proficiency in outlining the orchestra's vocabulary, listen to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition, orchestrated by him.)

That splendid tone consists of his handling of texture, an extraordinary disposition of timbres that says a lot about his domain at the manipulation of the orchestra’s expressive resources. Throughout his catalog, a fine approach to harmony (indebted to Debussy), an ingenious treatment of texture (often attributed to Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) and an acute sense to craft ingenious rhythmic structures (influenced by Stravinsky) is what make Ravel one of the freshest composers of the twentieth century.

There are several perks for getting close to Ravel’s music. First of all, his works, in contrast to many of his contemporaries’, aren’t particularly demanding. And second, his pieces are generally short and, above all, recipients of a high-level beauty.

Listen, for example, to little gems like Jeux d’eau, (played by the delicate and fine fingers of Martha Argerich); the elegiac Pavane for une infant défunte; the satiric La valse; glorious chamber works like the Piano trio; flamboyant suites like Le tombeau de Couperin; and, in case you have more time in your hands, his larger works like the ballet Ma mère l’Oye or his short opera L’enfant et les sortileges.

I really hope you get to delve into Ravel’s stylish constellation of notes. You will not be disappointed, rest assured; au contraire, I would even dare to affirm that you will end up like me: an obsessive fan of his music, making a compelling case to drag others into his marvelous musical world.


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