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

Categories: French Culture, French History

[00:00:00] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 491, quatre cent quatre-vingt-onze.

Bonjour, I’m Annie Sargent, and Join Us in France is the podcast where we take a conversational journey through the beauty, culture, and flavors of France.

Today on the podcast

[00:00:31] Annie Sargent: Today, I bring you a conversation with Elyse Rivin of Toulouse Guided Walks about the life and legacy of Maurice Ravel, one of France’s most esteemed composers, whose works continue to enchant and inspire music lovers around the globe.

For anyone with a passion for French culture and music, understanding Ravel’s contributions is not just a pleasure, it’s a necessity.

His compositions, including the ever popular Bolero and the intricate Piano Concerto in G Major, showcase a unique blend of musical innovation, technical skill, and a deep infusion of the cultural motifs that make French music distinctly enchanting.

For francophiles, Ravel’s music is a gateway to understanding the broader cultural movements of early 20th century France, reflecting the artistic literacy and social currents of his time.

Stay tuned as we celebrate the rich musical heritage of Maurice Ravel and discover why his legacy is essential for anyone who loves France and its artistic contributions to the world.

Podcast supporters

[00:01:39] Annie Sargent: This podcast is supported by donors and listeners who buy my tours and services, including my Itinerary Consult Service, my GPS self-guided tours of Paris on the VoiceMap app, or take a day trip with me around the Southwest in my electric car. Only the Southwest though. Somebody asked me this week, if I could do this in Marseille and Paris, no, only the Southwest, okay? You can browse all of that on my boutique:

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The Magazine Segment

[00:02:20] Annie Sargent: For the magazine part of the podcast, after my chat with Elyse today, I’ll share a few thoughts about taking the train in France. There’s been a lot of conversation about that on the Facebook group for the podcast and also on my itinerary calls.

Introduction to a Special Composer: Maurice Ravel

[00:02:43] Annie Sargent: Bonjour Elyse!

[00:02:44] Elyse Rivin: Bonjour, Annie.

[00:02:45] Annie Sargent: We have a composer with us today.

[00:02:48] Elyse Rivin: The first first time, I think.

[00:02:50] Annie Sargent: Yes, it is our first time talking about a composer as far as I know.

[00:02:54] Elyse Rivin: I belive so. We’ve talked about writers, and we’ve talked about painters and famous people in history, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about anybody who wrote music.

[00:03:05] Annie Sargent: Yes, and this one is easy to listen to, which is wonderful. I will let you take it away, I don’t know that much about him.

Ravel’s Early Life and Musical Beginnings

[00:03:13] Annie Sargent: I, so this morning I got up and I knew we were going to record about Ravel. So Maurice Ravel,

you know, 1875 is when he was born. And so this is the end of the Romantic kind of period.

He’s pretty much, really easy to listen to, I’m sure all of you have heard some of his music, even if you’re not into classical music. And so this morning when I got up, I started listening to Ravel and I’ve been listening to Ravel all morning and it’s lovely stuff.

[00:03:40] Elyse Rivin: Lovely stuff.

It really is lovely stuff. Yes. It is very interesting too, I was thinking as I was doing some research and making some show notes, we’ve talked a lot about painters and artists and writers. This is also someone who showed a great gift for music, in this case music, at an early age. It’s like there’s a whole collection of these people who were talented from the beginning.

[00:04:03] Annie Sargent: Well, I think one of the important things in life is to recognize what your kids are good at and then encourage them in that direction. And some people do that well, and some people don’t.

[00:04:15] Elyse Rivin: That is very true. So, Maurice Ravel he was born actually in the Basque country. He was born in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. But as a baby, a little baby, his family moved to Paris and that is where he basically, he grew up and that is where it really he lived for most of hislife. And interestingly enough, his parents who were not artists, but were very interested in the arts, were interested in music, had friends who were in the arts, were apparently very, very cultivated people, very modern for the time that he was born 1875, which is really when, think about it, that in 1874 was the first time the word impressionism was used, was one year before his birth, right? Then that was of course in relation to the painting by Monet. And so the last quarter of the 19th century is a period of great change and a lot of creativity and invention in all the arts.

[00:05:13] Annie Sargent: Right, right.

[00:05:14] Elyse Rivin: And particularly painting and music too. And of course, someone who was, who becamean associate, but was a little bit older was Debussy.

[00:05:22] Annie Sargent: Sure.

[00:05:23] Elyse Rivin: And eventually, someone I know you love a lot,Gabriel Fauré, who a little bit later on in the story of Ravel was actually one of his teachers.

[00:05:32] Annie Sargent: Right. Yes. Fauré, if you don’t know the music of Gabriel Fauré, do yourself a favor and listen to it. It’s absolutely wonderful.

[00:05:40] Elyse Rivin: It’s what Annie loves, Annie loves it.

Ravel’s Unique Musical Journey and Influences

[00:05:42] Elyse Rivin: So Maurice was basically brought up in this very encouraging atmosphere, if you want to call it that. And his mom, even though apparently she didn’t have any Spanish ancestors, loved Spanish music and played Spanish music in the house. And he grew up listening to Spanish melodies a lot, melodies from Andalusia, connected to, I suppose, I can hear them in my head, you know, basically, all of those strange rhythms and melodies that come from the South of Spain.

And he was interested in all of these kinds of musics that were not part of the classical tradition in France. And so his parents allowed him to start having piano lessons at the age of six.

[00:06:23] Annie Sargent: It’s a very good time to start.

[00:06:25] Elyse Rivin: It’s a very good time to start. He apparently wanted them. He was really happy to have them.

Andat the age of 12, he began his first classes in musical composition. This is already very impressive as far as I’m concerned, because as much as I have spent years in the visual arts, music is a mystery to me. I love it, but I can’t produce a note on key and the idea that people can, and that they can write music, to me it’s just like a miracle of the gods, you know?

I mean, this is just… it’s wonderful, you know. So at the age of 12 he began composition, and two years later in 1889, he entered the conservatory.

[00:07:03] Annie Sargent: Yes, which is normal. I mean, in France, if you are good at music and if you’re, you know, motivated to learn music, the normal course is to enter the conservatory. And they do normal school, so they will do their French, Math, History, all of that, but they also do a lot of music.

Interested in Experimentation at an Early Age

[00:07:21] Elyse Rivin: And it’s very interesting because he did stay in the conservatory, actually for several years, but apparently, he, I don’t know if he wrote it down or it was simply that he’s told his parents and people around him, he found it a little bit discouraging because he thought it was too conservative, basically.He was interested even at an early age in experimentation. And obviously you have to have the base, you have to have the base for composition. You have to have the base for different ways of putting music together. But he was at odds with a lot of what was going on in the conservatory.

And at one point he left, and he actually went and studied with Gabriel Fauré, who was at the time considered to be the greatest living French composer.

[00:08:04] Annie Sargent: They were right.

[00:08:05] Elyse Rivin: They were right.

And interestingly enough, Fauré found Ravel to be very interesting because of his new ideas.

It must have been interesting for Fauré, I don’t know anything really about him, but to have a student who was inventive, I mean, I can imagine it, I transpose it into the visual arts and I can just say, yes, that’s wonderful.

You have somebody who has an idea that they want to do something. It’s not just copying other people, that kind of thing.

[00:08:31] Annie Sargent: Which, I mean, but it’s okay if a young student starts by copying other people, right?

Right. But then you have to sort of break out. Somewhere you have to do your own thing, you know. You have to find your own voice.

That’s the right term for it, to find your own voice.

And so apparently,Ravel, because of this, because of this attitude that was a little bit off from what was considered to be even mainstream at the time, he was very, very frustrated because four times he presented himself as a candidate for the Prix de Rome, which is the prize, which is a prize, I believe it’s in painting, and it’s in writing, and it’s in music. The Prix de Rome.

And four times he came in second.


[00:09:11] Elyse Rivin: He never won it. Strangely enough, he was never the top, he was never considered the top, but… but, by the time he was in his early twenties, he was starting to become well known for his music.

[00:09:22] Annie Sargent: Wow, that’s impressive.

[00:09:24] Elyse Rivin: And he was known both as a composer and as a pianist. He was a magnificent pianist.

I don’t know, since he died in 1937, there must be some recordings of him playing. I don’t know if there are.

[00:09:36] Annie Sargent: Probably, yeah.

[00:09:38] Elyse Rivin: Some very early scratchy, you know, phonograph ones, it would be interesting to find one. He wound up having a group of people who basically gravitated around him in Paris because he was an odd fellow. I mean, he was, if you see pictures of him, he was rather interesting looking. He kind of reminds me of a little bit of a ferret. You know, he was very small, he was only 5.3, which means he was, really not big at all.

My height. Well, you and I.You think you’re five feet, I don’t think, I think you’re taller than that, but he weighed 48 kilos. You and I together, if we took off, you know, one arm would weigh 48 kilos, you know, it’s like…

[00:10:14] Annie Sargent: Yeah, yeah. I’m beyond that.

[00:10:16] Elyse Rivin: I mean, he was really small, and he, apparently his entire life was just his music.

No Romantic Relationships

[00:10:21] Elyse Rivin: He was never in his entire life known to have any romantic relationships, men or women, nothing, his life, yeah, nothing. There’s no scuttlebutt, there’s no gossip. There’s some suggestion that maybe he had some tendencies, but he never acted on them. Basically, he was really so devoted to his music and that was the center of his life.

So, I read a whole bunch of different articles and they said, no, no, nobody knows of any particular romantic connection.

[00:10:48] Annie Sargent: Now, when you said tendencies, you mean perhaps he preferred males?

[00:10:51] Elyse Rivin: Perhaps he preferred men and didn’t want to act on it. I mean, it’s not clear because certainly he was gravitating in a world where it was perfectly acceptable.

The end of the 19th century, beginning of 20th century, the bohemian life of Paris was not a life where you had to be correct. I mean, if you think about what people like Picasso and all of his painter friends did, I mean, they did just about everything. I mean, you know, we’re talking about sleeping with anybody you want to, taking drugs.

I mean, it was very, very, very free and bohemian.

[00:11:21] Annie Sargent: Right. but at the same time, people were punished for homosexuality in France. Perhaps he didn’t feel as free as, you know, yeah.

[00:11:31] Elyse Rivin: In any event, it apparently there was never really a lot of gossip about him in that way. So it’s kind of became the mystery of his life. Was it just music? Or was he timid? Was, you know, what the reasons were?

The Apaches: Ravel’s Artistic Circle and Social Life

[00:11:43] Elyse Rivin: In any event, he wound up having this enormous group of musicians, composers, and artists around him.

And they called themselves the Apaches.

[00:11:52] Annie Sargent: Oh, why?

[00:11:54] Elyse Rivin: Well, the term Apache, which of course in French would be apache,which was of course taken from having seenWild Bill, what’s his name? The Buffalo Bill. You know, he came through Paris and France doing his show with bringing, you know, Native Americans with him.

The term of course got picked up by the French and it was used to describe the bad kids, like delinquents in neighborhoods. That was the original.

[00:12:18] Annie Sargent: Yes. That’s what I know the term as.

[00:12:21] Elyse Rivin: So apparently, because these were the bad, bad boys and girls of the arts.

[00:12:28] Annie Sargent: Oh, I see.

[00:12:29] Elyse Rivin: That’s what they decided to call themselves. And so they literally put out that they were the Apaches of the arts.

I mean, this was, this was their thing. And he was the center of it.

[00:12:39] Annie Sargent: Oh, so he had plenty of social life.

[00:12:41] Elyse Rivin: Yes. Oh, yes. He had social life, and apparently up until the very end, when he was too sick to go out, he had a very active night social life. I mean, he spent his nights going to clubs, to concerts, he was never, it was basically a guy who was never home, you know, it was one of those, you know.

[00:12:58] Annie Sargent: That’s interesting that it was only socially, but not a private, Qui sait? Can you imagine

we don’t Oh, oh. No.

[00:13:08] Elyse Rivin: But among the people that hung out with him were Stravinsky, who of course Igor Stravinsky, who is really, also a major composer,a little bit younger than him, and Debussy, who’s a teeny little bit older, but who, of course, is the other composer, the other French composer associated with what is called impressionist music.

[00:13:28] Annie Sargent: Can you imagine hanging out with Stravinsky, and Debussy, and Ravel? Oh, amazing.

[00:13:35] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely amazing, you know. They were aware of the fact that they were considered to be impressionists, they weren’t insulted by the term, I mean, for them, even though they had very rigorous training, of course, you know, in the construction of their music and everything, the idea came from, of course, the painters, the idea that it was mood, there was a lot of mood in the music and that there was a certain fluidity in the music. Which of course, if you listen to Debussy, certainly you really understand right away, you know?

Do you play the Piano Puzzler on NPR?

[00:14:01] Annie Sargent: Right, it’s easy to pick out. Have you ever played a thing called the Piano Puzzler?

[00:14:07] Elyse Rivin: No.

[00:14:08] Annie Sargent: Okay. So this is a great thing. It’s an NPR show of sorts where you have a pianist that will play a famous tune in the style of, he will write a famous tune, rewrite it in the style of somebody. And you have to guess who the style was and what the piece was. Yes. And so, we often do this, with my husband, and Debussy is really easy to recognize as a composer. Ravel, not as much.

[00:14:38] Elyse Rivin: Right. Not as much.

He’s harder to guess because he had a bigger kind of palette of moods, you know.

I agree with you. I mean, I like Debussy, actually, there was a period where I listened to him a lot, but it’s pretty much all similar.

It’s kind of like a Debussy, whatever that is, you know?

A strong signature. Right.

[00:15:00] Annie Sargent: He had strong signature. Let’s put it that way.

[00:15:02] Elyse Rivin: You’re absolutely right. And Ravel, of course, was, I think he, it sounds like he was someone constantly interested in innovation and trying out new kinds of music and moving into mixing things together.

And so this group of Apaches, they basically hung out together and it started in 1901 and it lasted until the beginning of World War I. So that’s a fair amount of time. I mean, you know, if you think about it, it’s 13, just about 13 years or so.

And interestingly enough, Ravel, who by the outbreak of World War I, was not a youngster anymore, he was 40, 40 going on 41, he wanted to join up as a soldier. He was apparently extremely patriotic and he was refused because of his size, and because he was considered to be too frail. And he insisted so much on entering into the fight, it’s kind of hard to imagine this man who spent his life with music wanting so badly to go in and fight.

But in order to be part of the war effort, it took him until 1916 and then he was enrolled as a truck ambulance driver.

[00:16:08] Annie Sargent: Hmm, interesting.

[00:16:09] Elyse Rivin: Which of course made him feel like he was participating somehow in the war effort.

Which he was, except that by the beginning of 1917, he got dysentery, and was demobilized.

[00:16:22] Annie Sargent: Right, sent home.

[00:16:23] Elyse Rivin: And sent home.

And so that was the end of his military career. It probably discouraged him a little bit, but it also probably saved him.

[00:16:31] Annie Sargent: Right. It’s amazing that somebody in his forties who could have easily avoided the draft, or going to war at all, just wanted to. And if you imagine somebody who’s 45 kilos, some really frail guy, saying I want to go to war, it takes some cojones.

[00:16:50] Elyse Rivin: It does. It really does.

Ravel’s Philosophical Stance towards Germany

[00:16:52] Elyse Rivin: This is interesting though, right after World War I, now, Ravel is really well known, I mean, he’s a famous composer, and famous pianist. So the war is over, and he gets into a philosophicaldebate with Debussy among others, because after World War I, Debussy decided that he only wanted to play what he considered to be patriotic music.

[00:17:18] Annie Sargent: Right, so there was a problem with German music, obviously.

[00:17:22] Elyse Rivin: And of course, at the time, many, many of the composers right through the 19th century and into the 20th were in fact Austrian or German.

And, so Ravel and Debussy had a falling out because in spite of being a part of the war, he believed that music transcended differences.

[00:17:40] Annie Sargent: Yeah, that’s a tough one.

I, knowing me, I would have a hard time performing music from a country that just tried to beat you out of existence.

[00:17:52] Elyse Rivin: I have more of an ambivalent attitude as an artist, I’d say, about all of that. So I will not say exactly, but I really kind of agree with Ravel. I do, unless somebody really puts out their extreme patriotism, you know, their political positions that are really extreme, I really have a tendency to believe that art should transcend these kinds of nationalistic kinds of things.

In any event, Ravel encouraged Schoenberg, who was Austrian, and Bartók, who was Hungarian, because these were, of course, the new next wave of very, very inventive and very, very modern composers with atonal music and things coming out of really the kind of stuff that Ravel had, had developed, you know.

[00:18:36] Annie Sargent: Yes. So, Bartok is also easy to pick out because, you know, he introduced a whole lot of new types of sounds that we weren’t used to hearing.

[00:18:46] Elyse Rivin: Yeah, as well, some people still won’t want to listen to Bartók, you have to really like that kind of music.

[00:18:51] Annie Sargent: I think it’s nice.

I, some of it I like, actually. So, in 1920, this is Mr. Maurice Ravel. He is nominated for the Legion of Honor…

Uh huh.

[00:19:01] Elyse Rivin: And he turns it down.

[00:19:02] Annie Sargent: Why?

[00:19:03] Elyse Rivin: He said that he will not take a prize, it’s interesting considering that as a young man, he wanted so desperately to have the Prix de Rome, right? He said that the Legion of Honor was a government prize, and this is, I’ve translated the quote, it says that no government or prince is going to decorate him because that means they have the right to judge whether his work is good or not.

[00:19:28] Annie Sargent: Oh dear, yes, okay.

[00:19:30] Elyse Rivin: So hoity do do. So he did not take his Legion of Honor. He refused it. Never got it.

[00:19:36] Annie Sargent: That’s a bit much, huh? Yeah.

[00:19:40] Elyse Rivin: Very, very proud man, I’d say, you know, I mean, interesting, this idea, you get that today inthings like theprizes for painting prizes, for acting, every once in a while you get somebody who goes, well, you can’t tell me whether it’s good or not.

That’s, it’s a very interesting kind of attitude to have. I mean, it’s kind of…

[00:19:57] Annie Sargent: Well, it’s a fact that in the arts, your productions are going to be judged. How do you not?

And whether it’s the arts or anything else, like if you build houses, people will have an idea of whether they like your houses or not. And if you’re a gardener, do they like your garden or not, you know.

[00:20:17] Elyse Rivin: I’ve known other people, I mean, or I’ve read about other people in different forms of the arts, including architecture, who have also refused prizes for the same exact reason, you know. It’s like, don’t tell me whether my work is good or not, but it’s a very particular kind of stance to take, you know.

[00:20:32] Annie Sargent: I do know that he was very, he was not super prolific as a composer. So I think he only published about 60 pieces his whole life, which is not a lot. There are composers who, you know, thousand and then some. And it’s because he would just agonize over every note and he wanted things to be just right.

So clearly, he had high standards when it came to his work, but not wanting it to be, you know, kind of judged or…

[00:21:01] Elyse Rivin: It’s interesting. It’s like he was his own judge and you would listen to him or not, but nobody is going to decide wether… it’s interesting position to take right?

[00:21:10] Annie Sargent: Worth of a prize or not.

Hmm. Interesting.

Grand American Tour

[00:21:14] Elyse Rivin: So that was 1920. And then in 1928, so 1928, let’s see, he is 25, 35, 45, 53, in 1928, he has his dream wish come true, and he goes on a grand tour of the United States. In the interim, between 1900 and 1920, he already was aware of American music, and mostly Afro-American music. He had been able to hear some music that came from the States with the people who would move to France and move to Europe, especially after World War I.

And so he began this enormous, enormous tour of the United States, both as a pianist, as a composer, and as a conductor of orchestra.

So, he did the Grand Tour, although he did spend a good deal of time in New York, and while he was in New York, and I think he spent just about the whole year on this visit to the United States, he spent just about every single night going to jazz clubs, to ragtime, to listen to ragtime music, to jazz music, to blues music, he spent his nights in Harlem. And he became very good friends with someone whose work I love, and that is George Gershwin.

[00:22:24] Annie Sargent: Uh huh. There’s a lot of similarities between the two, as a matter of fact.

[00:22:28] Elyse Rivin: Right. And Gershwin, of course, who was younger, idolized him apparently. I saw a few pictures yesterday, I was looking on internet, and they were a whole group of people, including impresarios and everything.

Gershwin and Ravel: A Musical Friendship

[00:22:38] Elyse Rivin: So they became relatively good friends. And there’s a story who knows if it’s exactly true that at one point Gershwin said to Ravel that he wanted to study composition with him.

Now, in 1928, I don’t know exactly how old Gershwin was, but he was already making a name for himself as a composer. And Ravel said no. And when Gershwin asked why, he said, because if you study composition with me, you will wind up being a second rate Ravel instead of being a first rate Gershwin.

[00:23:08] Annie Sargent: Oh, wow. That’s a very interesting way to put it.

[00:23:11] Elyse Rivin: I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s absolutely wonderful. Basically, he’s saying, you have your own voice, you don’t need to study with me to continue it, you know, that kind of thing. Which I think is just a great quote, you know?

[00:23:22] Annie Sargent: It’s very nice.



The Creation of Bolero: Ravel’s Iconic Composition

[00:23:25] Elyse Rivin: So he returns to Paris, and at that moment, at the very, very end of 1928, he’s commissioned to write a piece of music for a ballet by one of his friends, a Russian ballet dancer named Ida Rubinstein.

I don’t know that much about her, but she was actually the person who made the demand on Ravel to write a piece for her, for a ballet she wanted to perform.

[00:23:49] Annie Sargent: So she commissioned a piece.

[00:23:51] Elyse Rivin: She commissioned a piece. And between July and October of 1928, he worked on a piece of music that is now considered to be the most played piece of music in the world.

And that is Bolero.

[00:24:04] Annie Sargent: Right. I think Bolero and Four Seasons are probably the most played music in the world.

[00:24:09] Elyse Rivin: It’s a piece of music that lasts 17 minutes. It is based on an Andalusian theme that he remembered from his childhood. I don’t know much about musical terms, but it says that there’s a ritournelle in it, which obviously is the way of, I suppose, repetition.

[00:24:27] Annie Sargent: Right, it’s a returning pattern.

It’s a returning pattern and there’s just two themes to it.

And of course it’s the same notes over, and over, and over again at different rhythms, you know, as fast and slow. And then it ends in a crescendo.

And also he adds instruments. So different instruments take the melody and they sound quite different, you know? So it adds to the interest and you have this drum the whole time.

[00:24:55] Elyse Rivin: It’s, hypnotic.

[00:24:56] Annie Sargent: Yes, it is.

[00:24:57] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely hypnotic.

Bolero’s Premiere and Legacy: Controversy to Classic

[00:24:59] Elyse Rivin: The premiere of Ballero was on the 22nd of November at the Opera Garnier.Apparently, it was a packed house. And most of the people apparently did not know what to make of this piece of music. There were a few people who said he was out of his mind, but I don’t know if at the time people actually walked out or not, you know.

[00:25:20] Annie Sargent: I don’t think so.

[00:25:20] Elyse Rivin: I don’t think so, but some people actually wrote afterwards and said: What was he doing? What was he thinking? But for most of the people there, they thought it was fabulous and it was an enormous and huge success. It was very controversial as a piece of music. It was not like anything anybody had ever performed before. And the irony, of course, is that in the end, at the end of his career, he really did not consider it to be the most important piece of music that he had written. But it is the piece of music that he is absolutely the most known for.

[00:25:52] Annie Sargent: Well, that’s the thing, he wrote so much, like he wrote a lot of piano concertos, he wrote things for solo pianists, that are just beautiful. And yet he’s known for the most approachable piece that he ever wrote, which I happen to like.

Yeah, so it’s just a personal choice. I think it’s a beautiful ballet.

I’ve seen some beautiful dancing to it.

[00:26:17] Elyse Rivin: I actually had a chance a number of years ago, this is a while ago, thanks to my sister, one of my sisters, my sister Lucille, who was living in Paris, and she got tickets for us to see the Béjart performance of Bolero. And we were in the second row and I will never ever forget that night ever ever. We got the sweat on us, you know, it was fabulous. It is so hypnotic and so it puts you into a trance as a piece of music you know, I mean it really is just seeing these bodies swaying back and forth and everything. It’s fabulous. But I think I can see why some people really, really would not like it.

But the irony of course, is that it became an absolute international success. And they say, you know, who knows if it’s true, that an example of Bolero is played every 10 minutes somewhere in the world, and considering that it lasts 17 minutes, this is good, this is good for chat to figure out if this is true or not, that basically it means that there’s never a moment when Bolero is not being played somewhere in the world.

[00:27:22] Annie Sargent: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure that’s true. And also, they’ve made so many different versions of it, like with all sorts, like some of them sound awful. It’s like some Casio from the sixties sound, it’s awful. And then some of them sound really, really good. So it just depends on who’s performing it.

[00:27:40] Elyse Rivin: It definitely does.

Ravel’s Life and Other Works: Beyond Bolero

[00:27:41] Elyse Rivin: He also did very interestingly, he wrote two piano concertos for a left hand. And it’s because he had a friend who lost his right hand in the war in World War I, he was a pianist, he asked him to write music for him that he could play just with his left hand.

[00:27:59] Annie Sargent: It’s the Concerto for Left Hand, is what it’s called.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it.

I’ve heard some of it. It’s part of the things I was listening to this morning. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of his, but it’s very interesting.

And it’s wonderful that he took the challenge to write a piece mostly for a one-handed pianist. I mean, that is just not something you do, you know, and as someone who was as famous as he was, he could have just turned it down, you know, but he did it.

[00:28:25] Elyse Rivin: He did it. Yeah, I guess he was one of those people, it sounds like he loved the challenge, no matter what. I mean, this was basically, he considered that all music was interesting, and he was trying most of his life to figure out how to incorporate different rhythms, different patterns of music into his own compositions.

And so basically that is what he did, he performed and composed for over 40 years.

Maurice Ravel at the end of his life

[00:28:50] Elyse Rivin: He eventually bought a house in the suburbs, about 30 kilometers outside of Paris, in a town called Monfort l’Amaury. But he still went to Paris all the time to go to the nightclubs, to see live music, to hang out with his friends, to see the dancers. His life was the nightlife of Paris.

And in 1933, he got hit by a car. And what happened was, and this is one of those ironies, but it’s not just with him that they discovered when they took him to the hospital, that he was having, he actually had an incurable neurological problem. They didn’t put any name on it, I’ve never found anything that said what it was, but apparently it kind of got set off by it or got worse because of getting hit in the head in this car accident.

And he had to stop. He stopped composing. And he stopped playing because it probably affected his hands as well, his mental capacities. And he died in 1937 just a day or two after having had a surgery to see if they could actually repair something to make him feel better.

So he was not an old man. He was only 62 when he died.

[00:29:58] Annie Sargent: Wow. It’s impressive to me that because, I mean, there are a lot of composers who wrote a lot of things because they felt compelled to, you know, they had ideas every five seconds. But composing music is very difficult. My father in law is a composer and has been commissioned to write many pieces and so forth.

And it’s not an easy process. It is really a lot of work is involved because they need to make sure that all the instruments can perform this, they show off what the instrument can do is, is what they’re trying to do, whatever the theme of the music or the tune of the music is.

It’s a lot of work and finding inspiration for new music is, it’s not easy. it’s like everything has been written already, it seems.

[00:30:43] Elyse Rivin: Well, yeah, I mean, again equating it to the equivalent in painting, for instance, it’s exactly, you could say the same thing.

You have to figure out how to make something new that hasn’t been done before. I mean, that’s what’s so amazing about it.

When Ravel died, there was already, you know, the much more into the atonal music and other kinds of music that come up. Of course, there’s been a lot of music that’s was created through the 20th century. But really, he is considered to be one of the two greatest innovators of modern music, introducing things that become part of what is known as modern music, and that was what he basically dedicated his life to.

Music in constant motion

[00:31:21] Annie Sargent: Yeah, and it’s really interesting because his music, it’s like it’s in constant motion. It flows kind of like water, you know, it just never stops. And I think it’s really good to listen to when you’re trying to work and concentrate on what you’re doing, because it’s always a satisfying pattern and your brain likes to have a satisfying pattern to hang on to while your hands are typing or doing something else.

I really like to listen to some of his pieces while working, not while sleeping. Because another thing he did is, he took very well known tunes, but well known to like the South of Spain or well known to some African group or something, and he would speed them up and make that the theme of his music. So he had a lot of purposeful research into finding new melodies, you know? It was still melodic kind of work, whereas the people that followed him threw the melody out of the door and you were like, kicked it to the curb, and we’re like, it doesn’t have to be melodic at all, which, hmm… maybe not, maybe it does. Yeah. Yeah.

It’s really interesting to me that his music has lived on despite the fact that, you know, I think somebody asked himabout the Bolero and he said, yeah, it’s the best piece I’ve ever written, except there’s no music in it. And what he meant is…

[00:32:46] Elyse Rivin: It’s there to put you into a trance, I think.

[00:32:48] Annie Sargent: Yeah, but there is plenty of music in it.

And I think it’s the introduction to a lot of people to classical music, to, you know, not pop, not easy listen stuff, just like you, I remember vividly watching Bolero and Béjart, not in person, on TV. Man, that was just, that was a performance. That was like, it’s not something you forget.

You know, so it’s well deserved that he sticks out in people’s minds. I get it. I think he’s a genius. And he wrote some pieces that were a bit edgy as well, he was at the, kind of, at the cusp of big change, but he’s most famous for a Bolero that is not all that challenging, you know.

[00:33:33] Elyse Rivin: It’s just fascinating, you know, that he started out really coming out of the tradition of a much more traditional romantic kind of classical music, and then worked his way into the absolute announcement of modern, and contemporary, and experimentation.

I find him more interesting to listen to, for instance, than Debussy, who bores me after 10, 15 minutes. Yeah, I kind of, Debussy is fine for putting me to sleep, you know. But I was going to, I just listened to you thinking, for me, the comparison in a strange way is with Mozart, and for instance, the Magic Flute, there’s something about certain pieces of music that stay with you forever, and ever, and ever.

[00:34:14] Annie Sargent: Right, so Mozart was 150 years earlier than Ravel, but it is true that they both adhered to the same kind of principles and rules of composition. It’s just that Ravel introduced tunes from other cultures, other places which Mozart didn’t.

And that’s where, you know, Ravel and Gershwin are so close because they are both very very well trained composers who can write fabulous work but are very influenced by jazz.

[00:34:50] Elyse Rivin: Right.

[00:34:50] Annie Sargent: That makes them really interesting to listen to, you know? Yeah. But when you have time, like when you’re, when you want to listen to music, what do you turn on Elyse?

[00:34:59] Elyse Rivin: In the car, I listen to a station called FIP.

[00:35:02] Annie Sargent: Yeah, so that’s…

[00:35:03] Elyse Rivin: France Inter Paris. One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it’s all music. I don’t like talk radio at all. I just have this thing, I hate talk radio.

[00:35:12] Annie Sargent: Here’s a podcaster who doesn’t like to talk.

[00:35:14] Elyse Rivin: I love listening to music in the car, and one of the things I found out about the station is that from the beginning they decided that they only wanted women as… it’s not DJs and announcers.

Yeah, so they, for a specific reason when it began this, I don’t know…

[00:35:29] Annie Sargent: …soft voices, very smooth.

[00:35:31] Elyse Rivin: And so you have different people, I never know who they are, I never pay attention, but like every couple of hours they change. So I know that there are different times of the day when it’s either American stuff like blues and old rock, or it can be classical, or it can be this, or it can be that.

And so I love the fact that I don’t know what I’m going to be listening to, when I put on the radio, but it’s always music.

The reason why I don’t like listening to talk in the car is because I get distracted.

See, so the music is kind of like, if I don’t have the music on the car, I think there’s something wrong, what’s going on in the car? You know. Oh, did I leave the door open? Something is weird, you know? But that’s what I listen to.

And at home I listen a lot, when I’m not using a disc, I have a lot of music, but I don’t always put the music on, I listen to France Musique at certain times of the day. And that is, I like too, because I do interviews with singers, and composers, and musicians, and I like listening to them talk about their art, their music, you know?

Yeah, so you do like talks, sometimes?

Yeah. Yeah. It’s just not in the car. It’s like, ooh, I don’t know if I’m going left or right, if I’m in the car, you know.

That’s funny, because I can listen to anything in the car.I know, but no, at home I can, at home I do, and I will sit and listen to an interview with a composer or a musician that I find it fascinating, absolutely fascinating.

[00:36:51] Annie Sargent: And very often what I do is like, if I’m watching a movie, or something, and they play something that’s interesting, or France Culture, France…

What’s the name of that station?

[00:37:03] Elyse Rivin:France Musique, France Classique, et France Culture.

[00:37:06] Annie Sargent: Yeah, anyway, I’m not sure we got the names perfectly right, but they often play things, like I listen to Franck Ferrand, I really like Franck Ferrand as a historian, and in between his historical stuff, he will play part of a symphony or a concerto or something.

And very often, I just pause the thing and I start listening to the whole thing.

Yeah, and then I’m, perhaps I go back to whatever he was talking to, whatever person he was talking about, but perhaps I don’t. So that’s often how I work, I often use Shazam to see what they’re playing, like in the movies, and sometimes it is classical, not always, you know. And then I listen to the whole thing. I like to listen to the whole album.

Like recently I was listening to someone who talked about Tracy Chapman, and I listened to the whole Revolution album. It is fascinating to listen to that whole thing. Of course, doesn’t much to do with Ravel, but equally inventive, I think. Very, very out there as a person. So I just like to hear the whole thing. When I start with a musician, I just like to listen to a lot of it.

What do you listen to when driving, walking the dog, working?

[00:38:08] Elyse Rivin: I think I’m going to go home and listen to some Ravel.

[00:38:11] Annie Sargent: But when I walk the dog, I don’t know, classical music for walking, it’s…

[00:38:15] Elyse Rivin: No, no, you need something a little bit more…

[00:38:17] Annie Sargent: I’m pretty sure there’s lots of people who listen to classical music while walking, too.

[00:38:22] Elyse Rivin: We’ll find out.

[00:38:23] Annie Sargent: Perhaps they will tell us,

Tell us, what do you listen to, and when?

Well, yeah. What do you listen to when you’re driving, walking, and not listening to this podcast, clearly?

Merci beaucoup, Élyse.

[00:38:35] Elyse Rivin: De rien, Annie. Au revoir.

Au revoir.

Thank you Patrons

[00:38:43] Annie Sargent: Again, I want to thank my patrons for giving back and supporting the show. Patreon supporters get new episodes as soon as they are ready, and ads free. If that sounds good to you, be like them, follow the link in the show notes!

Patrons also get more exclusive rewards for doing that, you can see them at And a shout out this week to new patrons, Karen Lewis, Nat, Christopher Pace and Beatrice.

Thank you all, and to all my current patrons, it is wonderful to have you on board with the community of francophiles who keep this podcast going.

And to support Elyse, go to

This week I published a reward for patrons. It was a casual convo between Elyse and I, where we talked about all sorts of things, and these are unscripted, just casual conversations. And I also had a Zoom meeting with my patrons. It’s always great talking to all of you face to face.

Reviews on VoiceMap

[00:39:50] Annie Sargent: I want to read two reviews of my VoiceMap tours this week.

One person said: “I did it in the afternoon on my own, and again, at night with my husband when we got out of his conference”.

Great, wow. Yes, doing it twice. Lots of people report that they enjoy doing them twice because they are kind of very dense, some of them especially, and very fun, so.

Another person wrote: “Absolutely perfect method to enjoy Paris at your own pace, the combination of knowledge and technology delivers a great experience. This was our fourth visit to Paris, but the first experience with Annie’s wonderful guidance. Great pace. Love the brief. But so informative vignettes along the way. We shared earbuds and almost stayed together. Stopped many times along the way to shop and eat. Looking forward to the next four tours we purchased”.

Thank you very much for those reviews. Yes, I think people really enjoy those. And podcast listeners get a big discount for buying these tours from my website.

You can see this at

There’s also a new review of my new tour called “Savoring Paris, a Food Lover’s Walk Around Les Halles”.

This person said: “Annie Sargent’s walking tours are excellent with clear descriptions, great history and anecdotes and practical tips. I’ve been to Paris several times and always learn something new on her tours. They enhance any trip to Paris”.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Taking the Train in France

[00:41:21] Annie Sargent: Now, let me share a few thoughts about taking the train in France. Of course, traveling by train in France offers a splendid window into the heart of French culture and landscape.

It blends efficiency with the pleasure of unhurried movement through the countryside, and cities as well.

But for those unaccustomed to train travel, which is a lot of my listeners, as a matter of fact, especially if you’re from a country where the railway system does not form the backbone of public transportation, here are some reflections and practical tips to enhance your journey.

And if you want more details, you should definitely listen to episode 428 ‘All Aboard the French Train System’.

All right, here’s a few tips. French trains are typically punctual. But of course, there are, you know, exceptions.

But you need to be on time. Trains wait for no one. The doors close minutes before departure. So check train schedules in advance and aim to arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before your train departs. This buffer lets you navigate the station, validate your ticket if necessary, and find the correct platform without too much stress.

Your train platform is not going to be announced until 20 minutes before it’s time to leave. Just be aware of that and you should really check the train number on your ticket. It says it gives you a train number. Check that against what you see on the displays. You have to understand the French ticket systems.

Tickets can be purchased online, through apps, at station kiosks, they can be paper, they can be on your app. I really recommend that you just buy your ticket from either the website or the app, and that you have your train code, your QR code, on your phone. Okay. This is the easiest way. That way you don’t have to worry about, do I need to validate this ticket or whatever.

You know, it’s a code and you’re good to go.

You have to learn a little bit about navigating the stations. Train stations are hubs of activity, but they are well organized. The information screens display departure and arrival times, just like an airport. The platform, which we say ‘voie’, the numbers are crucial for boarding the train at the right place, like I mentioned. If you’re not sure, ask station staff, they usually have red jackets or fellow passengers for help.

Knowing basic French, you know, helps as well. Depending on where you are, it’s not mandatory. You have to select the right seat. If your ticket includes a reserved seat, you have to find that one because, so you have to find the right car, the right carriage, I guess, and also the right seat number.

The trains are long, carriages are usually labeled both inside and outside. There’s a big number one or number two on the side of the train. That’s the class of the train. To find the car number, that’s on a small little screen on the side. And that will say, you know, car number blah, blah, blah. And it will show you where the seats are, if they’re upstairs or downstairs for the TGV.

Luggage, unlike air travel, they don’t take your luggage away and give it back at the end of the trip, but there are racks just like you’ll find on a shuttle bus, like the shuttle bus that takes you to the airport, there are racks where everybody puts their luggage, right?

Well, it’s the same on the train, you will put your luggage there. Typically, I recommend that you keep your valuables with you in your purse or on a smaller backpack or carryon that you can have with you at all times. So you’ll put your big piece of luggage on the racks, you can lock them up if you want to. I don’t find that necessary. I’m not aware of theft on the train being a big deal. Perhaps it was years ago, but it’s not today. So, just relax, okay? But do keep your valuables with you on your person, obviously.

And once you find your seat, you will have a little space to put some luggage in front of you and also above your head for mostly coats and things like that.

And then you just need to enjoy the ride, okay? It’s very scenic. Just relax, have a good time. You can read, depending on the seat you booked, you may have a plug. Or not, some places don’t. Sometimes there’s food on the train, sometimes there’s not. Even if there is food on the train, I don’t like the food on the train, so I bring my own.

Just relax, you’ll get there soon enough. And they’ll make announcements in French but there are also kind of signs inside, like screens inside of the train. And if you have your ticket on the app, you can follow your own train on the app as well. So, extra points for the apps.

Train Strikes

[00:46:32] Annie Sargent: If you purchase your tickets on the app, that’s where you will find information about possible delays, possible strikes, which again, strikes do happen. Strikes get announced all the time. Most of the time, the strike doesn’t go forward, so don’t panic. Wait until the day before, 24 hours before a strike, they need to say if they’re really doing it or not. And I know it’s hard to wait that long, but you just have to.

If there is a strike, if your train is canceled, they never cancel all the trains, so it might delay you a little bit, but it’s not going to ruin your trip unless you booked your days like you’re a lunatic. And if you listen to me, you probably don’t do that.

And also just so you know, the train is the most ecological way to travel, it’s even better than an electric car, if you can believe that. So enjoy the trains in France, be aware that they don’t go everywhere, that it’s not the fast train that goes everywhere. Oh, and yes, this week, somebody, she had read on the fine print that she could, for a 19 Euro fee, she could change her departure city. Well, yes, you can, but that’s only if you want to depart from a city that’s on that same line, okay? You cannot change departure city to a completely different line. If you need to do that, get a refund on that first ticket and get a different one, okay? Which you can do with some, it’s just like airlines, sometimes you can get a refund on your ticket, sometimes you cannot. Read the fine print.

My thanks to podcast editors Anne and Cristian Cotovan who produced the transcripts.

Next week on the podcast

[00:48:22] Annie Sargent: Next week on the podcast, a trip report with Joseph O’Reilly about the two faces of Provence. It was a fun recording. I think you’ll enjoy it, especially if you’re going to Provence, or if you have a thing for Provence, and who doesn’t, you have to listen to that one. And remember patrons get an ad free version of this episode. Click on the link in the show notes to be like them.

Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you join me next time so we can look around France together. Au revoir.



[00:48:52] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France travel podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2024 by AddictedToFrance. It is released under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license.


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Categories: French Culture, French History