Show Notes for Episode 491: Decoding Maurice Ravel, the Man Behind Bolero

Categories: French Culture, French History

Maurice Ravel’s music is in constant motion, it flows like water. In music you call that a mobile. There are melting harmonies, he takes laments and speeds them up.

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He served in the French army in his 40s in WW1 when he could have avoided service. He was not someone who wrote fast. He only finished 60 compositions by the end of his life and some of those are reorchestration of something he already wrote.

He wrote piano and piano concerto. A pianist who lost his right arm in WW1 commissionned him to write a piece (it’s called concerto for left hand) and it favors the low end of the keyboard.

RAVEL lived 150 years after Mozart and yet there are similarities between the two. It’s like they both work with the same rule book. But Ravel took the classical form and let himself be influenced by Jazz, like Gershwin.




Maurice RAVEL considered to be one of the greatest French composers of the 20th century, is most famous for his ballet music BOLERO.


How did this happen and what is so special about it and about Ravel’s music?

Here is Ravel’s Story


Maurice Ravel was  born in St Jean de Luz in Basque country but was brought up in Paris. His parents were middle class, very cultivated and had friends in the arts and in music. They were very modern for their time. His mother, although not Spanish, loved and played Spanish music and so Ravel grew up listening to melodies and rythms from Spain.

Maurice showed talent as a musician at the age of 6 and he was encouraged by his parents to pursue his musical education

In 1887 at the age of 12 he began his first classes in musical  composition. Two years later in 1889 he entered Conservatory. From this moment on, music was the center of his life

Although considered talented, he never won a prize, which was a great frustration and disappointment to him. Discouraged, he left the Conservatory and began studying with Gabriel Fauré, who was at that time the greatest living French composer. Fauré found Ravel to be very  interested in “new ideas” in music, some of which were unusual.

Ravel, in fact, was fascinated by music, rhythms and melodies from many cultures and sources. Four times he was refused the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious award in the arts, yet by the time he was 25 he was famous and his music was greatly infuential.


Starting in 1901, when Ravel wrote an impressionistic piece of music called Water Music, his influence was very great. A group of young artists, musicians and writers gravitated around him annd the called themselves the Apaches – a sign of rebellion and ‘modernity”. Among these were Stravinsky and Debussy.

This group of young creative people stayed together until the outbreak of WW I. Everything changed then.

WW I and Ravel’s Changes

Maurice Ravel was small, 1,60 and very slight: so frail that the army refused his services even though he wanted to join and fight. But he was so determined to be part of the war effort that he enrolled as a truck/ambulance driver and so, at the age of 41, was part of the war in 1916. But his army career did not last that long because he quickly became ill with dysentery and he was demobilized in 1917.

But WW I was also what created a clivage with other composers like Debussy who wanted only “patriotic” music, and decided to not use/listen to/ or play any music from other countries.

Ravel believed that music transcended differences, and he considered that others like Schonberg, who was austrian, or Bartok, who was Hungarian, were of equal value as musicians/composers.


Interestingly, WW I had a great influence on many artists and musicians whose styles changed soon afterwards. For Maurice Ravel, it was important to create new music that was as spare as possible. He wanted to reduce his music to what he called the “essential”.

He was also able to hear a lot of jazz and blues, the music that the world was discovering. It fascinated him and his dream was to go to the United States and listen to music everywhere;

He was very productive at this time and by 1919 Ravel was considered to be the greatest living French composer.

In 1920 he was nominated to be decorated with the Legion of Honor but he refused it. He said that no government or prince was going to decorate him because they didn’t have the right to judge whether or not his music was good!!


In 1928, finally, Ravel had his chance to go to the United States. He was invited to do a series of concerts, and to conduct as well. He did many interviews, played the piano everywhere, conducted, but most of all, spent days and nights in Harlem listening to the music there. He went to jazz clubs, to nightclubs, and loved ragtime and all the forms of afro-american music.

He also met and became friends with George Gershwin, who idolized Ravel. There is a story that Gershwin asked to study composition with Ravel, who said no. Ravel is quoted as saying, “why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first rate Gershwin!”


After returning to Paris, Ravel was asked to write a piece of music for a ballet – by his friend, the dancer Ida Rubenstein. Using as inspiration the Andalousian rhythm called a bolero,  Ravel composed a 17 minute piece that uses a repetition of the same two themes and notes over and over again;

The premiere of Bolero was on the 22 of November 1928 at the Opera Garnier. The house was packed. And stunned. Some people that he had gone crazy and wondered what this piece of music was: hypnotic and repetitive, it was an immediate and huge success as well as a controversial piece of music. He considered it to be a minor piece yet it became the music that is the most associated with him

It immediately became an international success, much to his resentment, who didn’t think it was an important part of his repertoire.

To this day it is said that Bolero is played every 10 minutes somewhere in the world, the most continuously played piece of music ever!

During his life Ravel never married, never was known to have any  significant relationship of any kind, other than artist friends. He lived the last part of his life going back and forth between his house on the outskirts of Paris in Monfort l’Amaury, and Paris itself

He enjoyed the Parisian nightlife all the time until,  in 1933, he developed an incurable neurological disorder and could neither compose nor play music any more.

He died in 1937 just after having a brain operation to help relieve his symptoms.

Ravel composed and performed for over 40  years . His work, at first considered to be “impressionistic” went on to be very modern, mingling music styles from many cultures and he in turn influenced many composers who came after him like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Gershwin and others.

His best known pieces are the ballet Daphné and Chloé, two concertos for left hand only that he created for a pianist friend who lost a hand in WW I, and of course BOLERO; he was  perfectionist, a purist, but also a grand lover of all music which allowed him to be open to new forms and styles


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Categories: French Culture, French History