Maurice Ravel – Maven of Recording

b. March 7, 1875 – d. December 28, 1937

One aspect of the French composer’s life – who was born 143 years ago on March the 7th. – tends to be relegated to a minor category of his musical achievements, namely, that he was veritably a maven during his last 25 years on this earth when it came to exploiting the comparatively new invention of recording in advertising his own compositions. Thus,

His own interpretations of some of his piano works were captured on piano roll between 1914 and 1928, although some rolls supposedly played by him may have been made under his supervision by Robert Casadesus, a better pianist. Transfers of the rolls have been released on compact disc. In 1913 there was a gramophone recording of Jeux d’eau played by Mark Hambourg, and by the early 1920s there were discs featuring the Pavane pour une infante défunte and Ondine, and movements from the String Quartet, Le tombeau de Couperin and Ma mère l’Oye. Ravel was among the first composers who recognized the potential of recording to bring their music to a wider public, and throughout the 1920s there was a steady stream of recordings of his works, some of which featured the composer as pianist or conductor. A 1932 recording of the G major Piano Concerto was advertised as “Conducted by the composer”, although he had in fact supervised the sessions while a more proficient conductor took the baton. Recordings for which Ravel actually was the conductor included  Boléro in 1930, and a sound film of a 1933 performance of the D major piano concerto with Wittgenstein as soloist.

I’ve particularly enjoyed playing Ravel’s piano compositions as part of my regular recital programs of the late 1990’s. His Sonatine (1905) – a veritable jewel – has been a favorite of mine all along.

Afterword:  Ravel  is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France’s greatest living composer.

Born to a music-loving family, Ravel attended France’s premier music college, the Paris Conservatoire; he was not well regarded by its conservative establishment, whose biased treatment of him caused a scandal. After leaving the Conservatoire, Ravel found his own way as a composer, developing a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of baroque, neoclassicism and, in his later works, jazz.

Ravel liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known 1928 work, Boléro.
In that 1928 work performed in Maastricht by André Rieu & the Johann Strauss Orchestra,  repetition takes the place of development.

He made some orchestral arrangements of other composers’ music, of which his 1922 version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the best known.

As a slow and painstaking worker, Ravel composed fewer pieces than did many of his contemporaries. Among his works to enter the repertoire are pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concertos, ballet music, two operas (each less than an hour long), and eight song cycles; he wrote no symphonies and only one religious work (“Kaddish”). Many of his works exist in two versions: first, a piano score and later an orchestration. Some of his piano music, such as Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is exceptionally difficult to play, and his complex orchestral works such as Daphnis et Chloé (1912) require skillful balance in performance.

Postscript: This very week I happened to come across a 90-year-old recording by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paris of Ravel’s La Valse. It was introduced in Paris on December 12, 1920, Camille Chevillard conducting. Stimulated by the waltzes of Johann Strauss II, Ravel here planned an “apotheosis of the waltz” to provide a picture of old Vienna.

The background ‘noise’ is inescapable, but the sample here is the last section of a 4-part recording in which the finale grows ever more restless and turbulent: The gaiety of Vienna in 1855 becomes grim and tragic in the dire post-war year of 1919.

References: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen;  My Diary

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