If I had a gun to my head and was asked who the greatest composer of all-time was, three things would happen. First, I would say “you’re the most intense classical music fan I ever met, man.” Second, I would say “please disregard that urine smell.” Finally, I would say “I think it might be Maurice Ravel.” The first of those two statements would likely be consistent regardless of when I was asked the question with a gun to my head, but the final one might vary depending on what day you ask me. Pretending that the day is today? I’m going with Maurice Ravel. I’m clearly under the influence of some kind of spell cast by a dead French person. Someone help me. But don’t actually, I’m good.
As anyone who’s ever read anything written here, I’m borderline obsessed with rating things, or assessing the ratings that things are given in the collective consciousness (alright fine, not unlike Madonna I’m actually over the borderline). I always like to use Beethoven 9 as the model of this idea: it’s an overrated piece, which is not the same as saying that it sucks. It just shouldn’t be the cornerstone of Western civilization and the consensus choice for greatest musical achievement of all-time. To use another example that I beat to death, Haydn is underrated as a composer not because everyone thinks he’s shitty, but because he is regarded as being a peg or two below the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms when in fact he’s at worst their equal and at best the greatest musical mind that ever walked the Earth.
Back to Ravel, then. He’s an interesting composer to try and assess. He’s got a pretty staggering output in a broad range of genres including a killer string quartet, an amazing piano trio, arguably the greatest thing a harpist could ever want to mess with, and some incredible piano music (to say nothing of the Violin Sonata which I do not know). He wrote some terrific songs, two one-act operas that remain in the repertoire, and one of the most famous ballets in a century that was filled with some pretty good ballets.
But his contributions to orchestral music are, and I don’t use this term lightly, fucking insane. I’m just going to leave this here:
- Pavane pour une infante defunte
- Une barque sur l’ocean
- Alborada del gracioso
- Daphnis et Chloe Suites
- Menuet Antique
- Ma mere l’oye
- Valses nobles et sentimentales
- Le tombeau de Couperin
- Rapsodie Espagnole
- La Valse
- Piano Concerto in G
- Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
And I didn’t even include the fact that he orchestrated Pictures at an Exhibition, which you might have heard, or the Fanfare that Ravel contributed to the collaborative ballet L’eventail de Jeanne. That sound you hear is Ravel dropping the mic and walking away.
That’s every single thing Ravel ever wrote for orchestra according to the Marnat catalogue with the exception of an abandoned piece called Zaspiak-Bat (whose composition may have influenced the aforementioned amazing Piano Trio according to comments from the composer himself). Each and every one of those works gets some play in degrees ranging from “Not quite as much as it should” to “There’s a decent chance an orchestra somewhere in the world is playing Bolero as I type this, what with time zones and shit.”
And yet doesn’t it feel like Ravel lives a bit in the shadow of Debussy and Stravinsky? With the exception of Bolero, most of the above compositions don’t seem to carry the same weight with audiences as Stravinsky’s ballets and neo-Classical shit or La Mer and Afternoon of a Faun, to say nothing of the chamber works. The arrangement of Pictures is a staple of the rep if there ever was one, and it’s certainly untrue to suggest that Ravel is rarely performed. But he’s just kind of there, surrounded by other composers who carved out a unique niche while Ravel seemed intent on carving out several. He can compete with Stravinsky in neo-Classicism and ballets, Debussy in Impressionism, Gershwin in the nether-world of jazz-tinged music, Respighi in the art of orchestration.
And yet until three days ago Ravel never really crossed my mind when thinking of the all-time, cream of the crop, this-world-would-be-indescribably-worse-without-them composers. And then I said to myself, “I haven’t listened to Menuet Antique in awhile, that’s a pleasant 7 minutes.” And I haven’t stopped listening since. Home, work, gym, wherever, it’s all Ravel all the time, and it shows no signs of stopping. How can a guy this gifted who wrote this much awesome music not be towering over everything around him and his time? This is music of grace and sophistication and impeccable technical skill, and yet it’s also just a great fucking time. I don’t know that anyone found that balance better than him, and I realize I’m saying that in the midst of the Ravel-induced haze. But don’t take my word for it. Take this youth orchestra from Spain’s word for it:
Seriously, if you’re not bobbing your head like an idiot by the end of that shit, you’re dead inside. It works beautifully as piano music, but it’s in a whole other galaxy as an orchestral work. So colorful and vibrant and secretly a little crazy time-wise.
And that’s Ravel in a nutshell: meticulously crafted insanity that will kick you apart if you give it a chance. I gotta go grab more Ravel CD’s to take to work.