Was Ravel’s Music any Good?

Maurice Ravel was a mediocre composer.

Now that I have your attention, don’t shoot the messenger.  That was Ravel’s own assessment.  Well, he didn’t put it in quite those terms.  Rather, in a letter to a friend, he said, “”I have failed in my life.  I am not one of the great composers.”

His less-than-glowing self-assessment came about, not because he wrote bad music, but because he wrote so little, compared to the likes of Haydn or Stravinsky.  However, it was Stravinsky who gave us insight into the relatively modest musical output of Maurice Ravel.  Stravinsky characterized Ravel as “a Swiss watchmaker.”  His music was precise, intricate, and assembled in a fastidious manner.  Many other composers shoved completed or partially completed works in a drawer, refusing to publish them.  Others ripped them up, or burned them, rather than have them see the light of day.  I find very few references to pieces Ravel composed which were left unpublished.  He was as attentive to detail in his writing as he was in his dress and appearance.

I must, however, take issue with the French master’s self-appraisal.  Daphnes and Chloe, Mother Goose, Rapsodie espagnole, La valse, Sheherazade, and his piano concertos – to name a few – are pillars of the musical world.  His ability to color in sketches left by others has brought many works to life.  How much would we even know about Modest Mussorgsky, were it not for Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition?

For most of us, the first thing which comes to mind upon the mention of Ravel’s name is Bolero, a piece of music Ravel characterized as a “piece for orchestra without music.”  Ravel didn’t believe anyone would listen to it once ballerina Ida Rubinstein and her company finished the ballet’s run.  He was quite wrong.  I encourage you to explore his music, then decide for yourself whether he was accurate in saying, “I am not one of the great composers.”

Read Why Ravel is Almost a Great Composer (The Telegraph)

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