Ravel and America

Visit this exhibit, on display April 4 to May 13, in-person in the First Tier Lobby of Davies Symphony Hall to see additional photographs, artifacts from the SF Symphony Archives, and a video featuring conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.

 Title Banner: Ravel and AmericaSet design for Daphnis et Chloé, Act II, by Leon Bakst, 1912

“All of life’s pleasure consists of getting a little closer to perfection, and expressing life’s mysterious thrills a little better.”

—Maurice Ravel

Known for craftsmanship, wit, and ingenuity, composer Maurice Ravel remains among France’s most popular composers. His music was rooted in his classical forefathers and inspired by explorations of his modern world. Contemporaries found his integrity admirable, his humor engaging, and his character genuine.

His success brought him to North America in 1928 for a four-month tour where he performed to sold-out crowds delighted by his unique and exquisitely detailed music. One stop of twenty-five was San Francisco, where he conducted the San Francisco Symphony. This year we celebrate the 90th anniversary of this tour, and honor the life and legacy of this distinct and versatile composer.

Join the celebration! Buy tickets to French Greats: Debussy and Ravel April 19 to 21, featuring much of the same repertoire Ravel performed with the orchestra in 1928. 

READ MORE: Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier Traces Ravel’s Journey

The Man

Portrait of RavelRavel, 1928

“I am happy I am alive today. I wouldn’t care to have lived during any of the other periods in history. I love our modern life; the life of the city, of the factories as well as the life among the mountains and at the sea-shore. I find beauty in all things; the great and the small, the humble and the powerful. Beauty is what modern artists endeavor to develop to the highest possible degree.”

—Maurice Ravel, The Musical Leader, 1911

Born in 1875 in Ciboure, France, Maurice Ravel’s parents encouraged him to pursue his musical inclinations from a young age. At 14 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition on and off for nearly a decade.

By the early 1900s Ravel had achieved international success, with his work performed regularly in Europe and North America. His compositions mixed modern influences with neoclassical foundations, finding inspiration in everything from the Javanese gamelan to factories. Famously called “the most perfect of Swiss Clockmakers” by Stravinsky, he was a dedicated craftsman, often spending years completing a piece and leaving many unfinished at his death. His relatively small but excellent oeuvre includes ballets, piano works, chamber music, and a series of wonderful orchestrations of works by other composers.

During this time in Paris, Ravel was a member of Les Apaches, a lively group of impassioned young artists and intellectuals that developed his appreciation for contemporary music and poetry. Through this group, he fostered some of his longest-enduring personal and artistic relationships.

In a testament to his integrity, Ravel was adamant about contributing to the war effort after Germany invaded France in 1914. Rejected by the military more than once because of his health and stature (he weighed just over 100 lbs), he was eventually accepted as a driver of supply trucks and ambulances. He served in this role for two years.

Ravel during WWIRavel in 1916, during his time as an ambulance driver in the First World War. (Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

LEARN MORE: Did WWI Change French Composer Maurice Ravel and his Music?

Ravel was a lifelong bachelor who once proclaimed, “The only love affair I ever had was with music.” His closest personal relationship in life was with his mother, with whom he lived until her death when he was 45. He lived the remainder of this life in the Paris suburb of Montfort-l’Amaury, with the companionship of six Siamese cats, surrounded by an eclectic collection of toys, book, and records.

“There are six curious Siamese cats, to whom the composer is attached—exotic creatures, none too affectionate, but affectionately cherished by their owner. He has his own odd fantasy, his own humor. He has probably found animals much more honest and endurable than men. ”

—Olin Downes, New York Times, 1928

At age 57, Ravel developed deteriorating aphasia after suffering a head injury. Unable to compose or eventually speak, he died after an unsuccessful brain surgery in Paris in 1937. Recent studies of Ravel’s condition have suggested his mysterious dementia began as early as 1927. Some argue this illness influenced his later works, including Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

ARTICLE: Brain Disease Shaped Boléro

“In this podcast, a story about obsession, creativity, and a strange symmetry between a biologist and a composer that revolves around one famously repetitive piece of music.”

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Ravel: Impressionist?

In the Wheat Field at GennevilliersIn the Wheat Field at Gennevilliers by Berthe Morisot, 1875. Click to view large.

The term “Impressionism” was coined by a Parisian art critic in 1874 to describe the collective aesthetic in an exhibition that included works by Monet, Morisot, and Cézanne. These artists revolutionized the use of freer brush strokes and color in their desire to capture reality as perceived in the moment.

Debussy and Ravel have been labeled Impressionist composers, a term analogous but not directly connected to the movement in art. Their music took liberties with form and tonality, and experimented with harmony to create figurative “impressions” of their subject matter.

Impression, SunriseImpression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1874. Click to view large.

The application of the term is not without controversy. Debussy and Ravel themselves wholly rejected the association. “What I am trying to do is something different—an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism, a term that is usually misapplied. . .,” stated Debussy. Ravel agreed: “I must admit I never associated the term with music,” he said. “Monet and his school were Impressionists. But in the kindred art there is no counterpart to this.”

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Debussy and Ravel

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are often linked as musical kinsmen without acknowledging the complexities of their relationship. Debussy was a friend and mentor early in Ravel’s career, but public and private disputes severed their personal relationship. Ravel once remarked, “it’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.”

Ravel’s support of Debussy was consistent but not uncritical. He always acknowledged Debussy’s influence and genius, even telling an interviewer in 1931 that “his dearest wish would be to be able to die gently lulled in the tender and voluptuous embrace of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun.” However, he made it clear in writings and interviews that he was an “anti-Debussyist” in compositional practice, and often critiqued the older composer’s formlessness. “With the profoundest admiration of Debussy, I have not been by nature completely sympathetic to his course,” he stated, “And although he was inspiring to me as a man and artist, I have gone on a different path.”

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Take Jazz Seriously!

The 369th Infantry Regiment band plays jazzThe 369th Infantry Regiment band plays jazz for American wounded outside their Paris hospital in 1918. The band was part of the first African-American regiment to serve abroad in World War I. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Paris was introduced to jazz by African-American troops and their bands during World War I, and it immediately caught the ear of composers of the day. “I frankly admit I am an admirer of jazz, and I think it is bound to influence modern music,” said Ravel, “It is not just a passing phase, but has come to stay.” The influence of jazz tonalities and rhythms can be heard in many of Ravel’s works, including Violin Sonata No. 2 and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

Ravel at the piano at his birthday party in New York CityRavel at the piano at his birthday party in New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oscar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor; and composer George Gershwin. (Courtesy of Pictorial Press Limited)

A vocal proponent of jazz, Ravel sought out performances both in Paris and, during his 1928 tour, across America. When asked what information should be given to the Americans before the tour, Ravel wrote, “You can add, if it might please them, that I like jazz, far more than grand opera.” During his time in New York he met George Gershwin, and accompanied him to several famous jazz venues in Harlem, including the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom.

READ MORE: When Ravel Met Gershwin in Jazz Age New York

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Ravel’s North American Tour

New York • Boston • Chicago • Detroit • Cleveland • San Francisco • Los Angeles • Seattle • Vancouver • Portland • Denver • Minneapolis • Kansas City • Omaha • Niagara Falls • Toronto • Milwaukee • Boston • New Orleans • Houston • Grand Canyon • Buffalo • Montreal

Ravel on a boat with soprano Nina KoshetzMaurice Ravel and soprano Nina Koshetz on the deck of the SS France, bound for the United States in 1928. (Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

On December 28, 1927, Maurice Ravel set sail from France bound for New York to begin a four-month tour of North America, where he was to conduct concerts of his own compositions and orchestrations and give recitals of his piano music. His reputation preceded him. “As soon as we arrived in the harbor,” he wrote to his brother, “a swarm of journalists invaded the boat, with cameras, movie cameras, and cartoonists. . . [at the hotel] every minute they would bring me baskets of flowers, and of the most delicious fruits in the world.” The composer enjoyed enthusiastic receptions at each of his 25 stops. When resounding applause erupted from a packed audience at a concert of all-Ravel music in New York, he emotionally told his friend “This would never happen to me in Europe.” When he was not performing, he was at receptions held in his honor, seeking out jazz halls, or exploring the landmarks of America. After the success of the tour Ravel returned to France on April 21, 1928.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ravel at Home in the Land of Music

The SS FranceRavel traveled to American on the SS France, pictured here in 1912. (Photo by a photographer for the Byron Company)

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Correspondence from America

Excerpts from A Ravel Reader: Articles, Interviews and Correspondence, edited by Arbie Orenstein

New York

To Édouard Ravel
January 16, 1928

My dear little Édouard . . . The concert in New York went well. Flattering reviews, at times an entire page. Only the French newspaper in New York didn’t write about me.

Maurice Ravel enjoyed a close relationship with his brother, Édouard Ravel.

To Rene Polain
January 30, 1928

My dear friend,

Since arriving in the United State, this is the first opportunity I have had to write. I hasten to take advantage of it in order to ask you to be my spokesman to your colleagues, to tell them of my joy in hearing my works performed with such perfection by an orchestra which is rightly considered to be the world’s finest, and whose conscientiousness in capturing the spirit of my music touched my profoundly.

Rene Polain, first violinist with the Boston Symphony, acted as an interpreter for Ravel during his time in Boston and New York. The Boston Symphony, under Serge Koussevitzky, played an all-Ravel concert to a sold-out audience, including the very touched composer.

Los Angeles

In a postcard to Édouard Ravel:

My dear little Édouard, now it’s like summer: 95 degrees. A brilliant sun; a large city in full bloom, with flowers which grow in greenhouses in France, and tall palm trees which grow here naturally…Took an excursion to Hollywood, the film capital. Various stars: Douglas Fairbanks, who fortunately speaks French. . .*

*I was supposed to have lunch with Charlie Chaplin, but I didn’t think it would be any more amusing for him than for me: he doesn’t know a word of French.


To Édouard Ravel
February 21, 1928

Left Denver last evening . . . Will leave [Omaha] tonight about ten o’clock after having heard Omaha’s jazz, which is famous. I spent 3 days in Denver, a city situated at an altitude ot 1600 meters (gold and silver mines). The air is very pure. Always bright sunshine. . .

READ MORE: Unfavorable Impressions on Ravel's Cleveland debut

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San Francisco

The SF Ferry Building in 1928The San Francisco Ferry Building in 1927. (Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Maurice Ravel arrived in Oakland via the Overland Limited on January 31, 1928. Rushed by a porter from depot to pier, he crossed San Francisco Bay and docked at the Ferry Building. Waiting to greet him was the bushy-bearded Alfred Hertz, only the second music director the San Francisco Symphony had employed, but who in the past thirteen years had put the Orchestra on America’s musical map. Now he shepherded the composer to a waiting car, which sped to the Curran Theater.

The SFS with Alfred Hertz in 1926The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with Alfred Hertz, Music Director. (Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives)

On stage the orchestra waited for Ravel to start the rehearsal. San Francisco was only the middle stop on the composer’s long cross-country journey. On this Tuesday afternoon, Ravel and the musicians worked together, preparing their weekend concerts. The program: all-Ravel, plus two short Debussy pieces he’d orchestrated.

The Program from Eighth Pair of Symphony ConcertsProgram from Eighth Pair of Symphony Concerts noting the appearance of guest conductor Maurice Ravel, 1928. Click to view large.

Ravel was among the first of many composers to perform their own works with the orchestra. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Alexander Fried, while celebrating the occasion, expressed one reservation in his review. “It may be whispered . . . that a conductor of greater experience could have made each of his works more vivid, lucid and compelling than their creator did himself.” Nonetheless, Fried reported, the ovations “continued indefinitely.” 

Review of Ravel in the SF ExaminerMusic critic Redfern Mason's review of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performance with Ravel on February 3, 1928, San Francisco Examiner, February 4, 1928. Click to view the whole review/read a transcript.

Ravel would have enjoyed the applause from that discriminating audience. Surely he knew the reputation the San Francisco Symphony had built since its inaugural season, in 1911. Perhaps he had heard Hertz and the Orchestra on their recordings, the Orchestra’s first, made in 1925. Perhaps he had seen Hertz on the cover of Time magazine in the fall of 1927, his image there heralding the Symphony’s arrival on the scene—in an era when the West Coast was still considered an outpost. As Ravel conducted, he would have noticed more women players than he’d encountered on his other stops, for in 1925 the Symphony became the first US orchestra to employ women other than harpists. In fact, much of what we take for granted about San Francisco concert life was introduced by Alfred Hertz in the 1920s: regular performances for children, a summer series, radio broadcasts, even touring. By 1928, the San Francisco Symphony had embarked on all these. It had moved into modern times.

The Pasmore SistersThe Pasmore sisters Dorothy (left) and Mary (right) joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1925. They are pictured here with their sister Suzanne (center)

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More Resources

SF Symphony History:

Read More on Ravel:

  • Ravel, by Roger Nichols. Yale University Press, 2011.
  • A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, edited by Arbie Orenstein. Columbia University Press, 1990.
  • Ravel, by Jean Echenoz. The New Press, 2005.

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Table of Contents
Click on the links below to jump to another part of the exhibit, or scroll to view it in its entirety.

The Man

Ravel: Impressionist?

Debussy and Ravel

Take Jazz Seriously!

Ravel’s North American Tour

Correspondence from America

San Francisco

More Resources