Ravel the Hooligan

On the 22nd of November, 1928, one of the world's best known pieces of classical music was given its premiere in Paris. It was a piece which the composer himself thought that orchestras would refuse to play, because it was "a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral fabric without music - one very long, gradual crescendo." Others have said about it that "there is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm." Now loved by audiences around the world, Ravel's Boleró became a huge success after its premiere, much to the confusion of the composer himself. He commented to fellow composer Arthur Honegger that "I've written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there's no music in it." The piece has even been subject to criticism from scientists. In 2002, an article published in the European Journal of Neurology suggested that the insistent repetitiveness of the piece may even have been caused by Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Ravel was often seen as somewhat of a maverick during his lifetime. During his time studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he was deemed to be too musically and politically progressive, and was expelled not once, but twice. Ravel was unaffected by criticism, and quietly went about making a name for himself with his compositions. Around the beginning of the 20th Century, he became attached to a group of artistic outcasts known as "Les Apaches," or "The Hooligans." This group included Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla among other artists, writers and critics. The group met every Saturday, and were extremely vocal in their support of each others music and that of Debussy. Ravel was a slow worker, only completing one or two major works per year. He was strongly influenced by his mothers Spanish heritage, the impressionistic language of Debussy, the jazz stylings of Eric Satie and Darius Milhaud, as well as musical traits from as far away as Indonesia.

In 1900 the world came to Paris for the Exposition Universelle. Visited by nearly 50 million people, the Exposition brought together inventions, architecture and culture from all over the world. Many countries sent colonial exhibits which included animals, art and music. It was here that Ravel first came across Madagascan musical instruments and styles. Over 25 years later, when commissioned by Elizabeth Coolidge to write a piece for voice, flute, cello and piano, Ravel happened to be reading a set of poems titled Chansons Madécasses, or "Madagascan Songs," and decided to set three of these poems for the piece. Ravel also admits that the piece could not have been written without Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire as an example of using the voice as a primary instrument in a chamber ensemble. The resulting set of songs, written in 1925 and 1926, dwell on love, war and blissful idleness. Though often quite sparse musically, the combination with the poetry gives a powerful result, highlighting the primal nature of the text.