My love of Ravels’ compositions goes all the way back to age 10 when I broke my arm and my mother bought a “stereo” (equivalent to what would be today’s boom box or ipod) to entertain me until I could go back to practicing piano. Along with the stereo, one of my first purchases was a recording of Ravel’s famous Bolero; I listened to it until the grooves wore out. Now I play two of Ravel’s most beloved compositions on piano, Pavane pour une Infante defunte and the Adagio Assai from his Piano Concerto in G.
Ravel’s father was Swiss and his mother from the Basque region of Spain. His unique love of Basque culture led to a career-long fascination with rhythm and dance. This, combined with a tendency to obscure emotion behind a film of artistic restraint, came to be recognized as quintessentially French.
Numerous other composers influenced Ravel yet he remained unique. Chabrier provided inspiration for the Pavane pour une Infante defunte, the first of Ravel’s compositions to be widely embraced. Its delicate and unwavering rhythm depicts a princess dancing the Pavane at court and becoming so obsessed with its beauty that she loses all interest in anything else. His most influential teacher was Faure and contemporaries included the likes of Debussy, Satie, Massenet, Saint-Saens, de Falla, and Stravinsky (one of Ravel’s closest life-long friends). He also interacted with many of the impressionist painters (Verlaine, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas) of the early 20th century.
Many of Ravel’s compositions drew sharp disapproval from critics and the public but made him a celebrity among his young artist comrades. He composed in many different styles with one period focusing exclusively on ballet and a later period incorporating elements of jazz. After visiting America he reported that “American people have developed a distinct national personality by combining different races into a united whole” which resulted in “two distinct characteristics: underlying pathos… plus a hidden yearning for an ideal which Americans hardly understand.” (62% through digital text)
Ravel composed Bolero only a short time after returning from his concert tour to America. Its pulsating beat never varied when Ravel conducted it in concert and it is this constant forward movement, drawing the listener to an eventual dramatic key modulation and explosive conclusion, that made the piece so intoxicating. Another of Ravel’s last compositions, the Piano Concerto in G, incorporates a similar rhythmic pulse in the middle movement (Adagio Assai) that supports a tender and elegant melody. The pace and persistence of each of these compositions creates a captivating quality much like the short life of this eccentric composer with the Basque heart and restrained French sensibility.