Could it be said that Ravel composed in the shadow of Debussy? Their names so frequently trip off the tongue together that it’s too easy to ignore their differences. While there were similarities in their musical language – both used ‘added-note’ harmonies and melodies often more like oriental arabesques than Romantic tunes – the 13 years that separated them were crucial. Debussy began composing around 1880, while Ravel didn’t really get going until the mid-1890s. How the musical climate had changed in the interim!
Piano-playing was at the centre of Ravel’s musical life during his teens. At the age of 13 he had met Ricardo Viñes, the pianist who was later to become the champion of much piano music by both Debussy and Ravel. Together, they played Chabrier’s Trois valses romantiques to the composer.
Across the turn of the century, Ravel sporadically studied with Fauré and began a spectacularly unsuccessful pursuit of the Prix de Rome, awarded by the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Reading between the lines, his attitude to his formal teaching seemed entirely the opposite of Debussy’s: while the latter composer was a rebellious challenger, Ravel seemed more in pursuit of classical perfection.
Indebted to Chabrier, his first lasting piece was the Pavane pour une infante défunte for piano (1899, later orchestrated). More groundbreaking was his piano piece Jeux d’eau (1901), which he wrote when he was 26 and which vied with Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ from the first book of Images for the honour of inaugurating the new Impressionist piano style.
He began to turn his attention to a wide variety of forms: the opulent oriental orchestral songs of Shéhérazade date from 1903, the same year in which he finished his String Quartet, a work which, like the Sonatine for piano (begun the same year), shows two opposite sides of his musical personality: the one sybaritic and hedonistic, the other Classical, formal and restrained. Somewhere between the two lies the delightful sound-world of the Introduction and Allegro for harp and chamber group.
Another talent of Ravel’s was his virtuosity in pastiche, which he used to great effect, especially in his two operas: L’heure espagnole (1907–9) parodies both Spanish music and Offenbach, while the delightful L’enfant et les sortilèges (1920–25) is a self-confessed parade of pastiches of all kinds of music, including ragtime.
Association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes resulted in the opulently orchestrated Daphnis and Chloë (1909–12), with its masterly depiction of a sunrise. Amid deteriorating health Ravel, in his fifties, produced his two piano concertos as well as his bestseller, Boléro, which he flippantly described as a ‘piece for orchestra without music’.
Profile © Richard Langham Smith