Did WW1 change French composer Maurice Ravel and his music?

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1. A composer at war

Maurice Ravel was one of France's most significant composers. His meticulous style led his friend, and fellow composer, Igor Stravinsky to describe him as 'the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers', while others drew a line from France's impressionist painters to Ravel and his contemporaries, whose music echoed the powerful creativity of that movement.

But in August 1914, the great powers of Europe descended into war, and by the end of the month, German troops were crossing the French border. The stage was set for four years of fighting on French soil - four years in which eight million French men were mobilised.

Among them was Ravel. He was 39 years old; only just eligible to fight. But this famous and successful composer wanted to join the war effort, and would play a part in some of France's most bloody battles.

2. A reason to fight

Despite being born in France, Ravel always had a sense that he wasn't really French.

The small town where he was born, Cibourre, is in the Basque region of France, just a few miles from the border with Spain. And his Basque mother and Swiss father gave him an international rather than French heritage.

Looking for acceptance

The style of some of Ravel’s compositions suggests he had a romantic notion of France, looking to its past as a great power at the centre of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

During his years at the Conservatoire de Paris, Ravel had tried and failed five times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome – a scholarship to study in Italy for France’s leading artists and musicians. This lack of recognition became known as the ‘Ravel Affair’, and great controversy was stirred up in the Parisian Press, and by the composer’s friends and colleagues.

He was seen by the establishment as an awkward character, but in reality he wanted to be accepted, and as a proper Frenchman. World War One gave him the chance to achieve that.

Reaching for the skies

The war also gave Ravel the chance to fulfil another romantic ambition.

As a fan of 19th-century French poet and writer Baudelaire, he had picked up the idea of being a dandy: a well-dressed man, who maintains complete control over his own actions, while surprising others.

And this might explain why, according to his friend and fellow composer Charles Koechlin, he wanted to be a ‘lance-bombes’: a bombardier, who would fly, well-dressed, thousands of feet above the carnage below, dropping bombs out of the sky on to unsuspecting - and surprised - German soldiers below.

3. Ravel at war

Ravel initially tried to join the French infantry, but was rejected because he was too light – he weighed 48kg (7st. 8lb), two kilograms lighter than the required limit. He then turned his attention to the air force, hoping his lightness might in fact be an advantage. Ill-health would make this attempt unsuccessful as well.

But he was determined to play his part in defending France, and began the war caring for wounded soldiers in St Jean de Luz, close to Ciboure. He then learned to drive, passing his test in December 1914, and was declared fit for service in the military supply department as a truck driver.

After a brief time servicing trucks in Paris, in March 1916 Ravel was sent to the Western Front at Verdun in north-west France. He was put in charge of driving petrol supplies to the front, and rescuing abandoned trucks in what would become one of the longest and costliest battles of the First World War.

4. Verdun: bleeding France to death

The Battle of Verdun began in February 1916 with a German attack in which over one million shells were fired in the first day alone. The objective was to inflict maximum casualties and knock France out of the war.

The French leadership declared that it would hold on to Verdun at any cost – believing the survival of France itself was at stake. Such was its significance that three quarters of the French army defended Verdun at one time or another.

In July 1916, the infamous Somme offensive drew German troops away from Verdun, relieving the French forces. After 10 months, the battle was over, but at a cost of over a million casualties.

Ravel under fire

The only road to survive German shelling was the Bar-le-Duc, which became known as La Voie Sacrée ('The Sacred Way'). Delivering vital supplies under artillery fire clearly had its risks for Ravel and he would have been in considerable danger.

Writing at the time, he recalled: ‘For a whole week I have been driving days and nights – without lights – on unbelievable roads, often with a load double what my truck should carry. And even so I had to hurry because all this was within range of the guns. Adélaïde and I – Adélaïde is my truck – escaped the shrapnel, but the poor dear couldn’t keep going and after losing her number-plate in a danger zone where parking was forbidden, in despair she shed a wheel in a forest, where I did a Robinson Crusoe for 10 days until someone came to rescue me.’

The end of Ravel’s war

Still harbouring ambitions to be a pilot, Ravel’s hopes were dashed when he was diagnosed with a heart condition, and he was soon let off duties. While returning from a brief stint of leave in mid-August 1916, he contracted dysentery and was hospitalised. Just as he was getting over the dysentery, he was diagnosed with a hernia and operated on at the end of September. By the end of October, he was back in Paris recuperating.

5. Ravel’s musical tribute to fallen friends

Between 1914 and 1917, Ravel composed ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ – a solo piano suite in six movements, with each movement dedicated to a friend, or friends, killed in World War One.

Joseph de Marliave image courtesy of Coll. Médiathèque Musicale Mahler, Paris (Long Archives)

Despite his role as a truck driver, Ravel had time to compose ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ during the war; a solo piano suite in six movements. Each movement was dedicated to a friend, or friends, killed in the war. It was immediately controversial.

6. WW1 and Ravel's music

For a short period in the war, Ravel was effectively blacklisted and his music was not performed in France.

This was because of his refusal to support a ban on foreign music, advocated by La Ligue pour la Défense de la Musique Française, which had powerful backers in the French musical establishment.

But Ravel's reputation as one of France’s leading composers prevailed. In 1920 he was offered membership of the Légion d'Honneur. He publicly refused it.

After the war, Ravel’s compositions were increasingly eclectic, drawing on a broad range of influences from 18th-century music to ragtime and American music hall. The music he produced is also much more stripped down than his pre-war compositions, showing a shift away from the harmonic richness of the masterworks he produced in late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The piano work Frontispice can be seen to symbolise the sense of fragmentation in Ravel’s mind as a result of his wartime experiences. But from the end of the war to the end of his composing life in 1933, Ravel recovered to produce a series of fantastical masterpieces marked by great individuality, including the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, the ballet Boléro, and two piano concertos.

Ravel's health was permanently affected by the stresses of World War One, including the death of his mother in 1917. He was plagued by insomnia during the war and for the rest of his life. In 1932 his health began to decline rapidly. He died five years later, after undergoing exploratory brain surgery.

7. How has war affected other composers?

Everyone's reaction to war is personal, regardless of job or profession. But the impact of war on composers' experiences and thoughts can be revealed through their music.

Here's how war affected four other celebrated composers of the 20th century.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

During World War One, Vaughan Williams served as an orderly in Britain’s Royal Army Medical Corps. The war had a deep and lasting impact on him. Pastoral Symphony (No.3) is an evocation of his wartime experiences, featuring a solo trumpet in the 2nd movement that brings to mind the Last Post, and a wordless soprano solo accompanied by a drum roll that opens the fourth movement.

Jehan Alain

French organist-composer Jehan Alain served as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the French Army during World War Two. In 1940, he died heroically in action at the age of 29, leaving behind a body of tantalisingly brilliant compositions. He won prizes and received early accolades for what was published in his lifetime.

Michael Tippett

Tippett was a committed, life-long pacifist. In 1943 he served a three-month jail sentence for his convictions as a conscientious objector. His choral composition A Child of our Time (1939-41) was prompted by the persecution of the Jews.

Nigel Osborne

For over 20 years, Nigel Osborne has had a deep connection to the Balkans, first as a humanitarian volunteer working under siege in Sarajevo and then conducting music therapy sessions with the charity War Child. Some of his music draws directly on those experiences.