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Ravel, Maurice

Maurice Ravel was a French composer of Swiss-Basque origin who is well known for works like Boléro (1928), Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899; Pavane for a Dead Princess), Rapsodie espagnole (1907), the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (first performed 1912), and the opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges (1925; The Child and the Enchantments). Ravel was born to a Swiss father and a Basque mother in a village near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France. Maurice's family had a creative and cultivated heritage, and when his passion for music became evident at a young age, his father backed him up wholeheartedly. He enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 14 in 1889 and stayed there until 1905. He wrote several of his most well-known works around this period, including the Pavane for a Dead Princess, the Sonatine for Piano, and the String Quartet. Both of these books, especially the last two, demonstrate Ravel's remarkable early mastery of style and craftsmanship, which are hallmarks of his entire oeuvre. He is one of the few composers whose early works seem to be as mature as his later works. Indeed, his inability to receive the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition after three attempts at the Conservatoire (the pieces he submitted were considered too "advanced" by ultraconservative members of the jury) sparked a controversy. Liberal musicians and poets, including musicologist and author Romain Rolland, backed Ravel, and indignant complaints were written. Consequently, the director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was compelled to retire, and Gabriel Fauré, with whom Ravel had learned composition, was appointed in his place.

Ravel was not a progressive artist in every way. He was often happy to work within the existing structured and harmonic conventions of his day, still deeply embedded in tonality—that is, the arrangement of music around focal tones—for the most part. Yet, since his adaptation and abuse of the conventional musical idiom was so intimate and unique, it's fair to claim he created a vocabulary of his own that carries the imprint of his personality as clearly as any work by Bach or Chopin. Though his melodies are almost all modal (i.e., focused on the old Greek Phrygian and Dorian modes rather than the traditional Western diatonic scale), his harmonies are always acidic due to his fondness for "added" notes and unfinished appoggiaturas or notes not part of the chord that is left to stay harmonically unresolved. From the early Jeux d'eau (completed 1901) and the Miroirs of 1905 to the formidable Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), and the two piano concerti, he enriched the literature of the piano (1931). The Rapsodie Espagnole and Boléro are the best-known of his strictly orchestral compositions, revealing his consummate mastery of instrumentation. His collaborations with Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, for whose Ballets Russes he wrote the masterpiece Daphnis et Chloé, and the French writer Colette, the librettist of his best-known opera, L'Enfant et les sortilèges, were possibly the highlights of his career. Ravel was able to do some clever and funny stuff with the animals and inanimate items that come to existence in this story of bewitchment and sorcery. A mischievous kid is engaged in the above work. His one other opera, the beautifully ironic L'Heure Espagnole, was his one other operatic production (first performed 1911). With his inventive Histoires naturelles, Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, and Chansons madécasses, Ravel distinguished himself as a songwriter.



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