Maurice Ravel was born in his mother’s aunt’s house in Ciboure, France. His father Joseph was an engineer and actively encouraged a musical career for his son. Maurice was taught privately by Henri Ghys, then Emile Decombes, and finally went to the Paris Conservatoire in 1889. Whilst there, he was influenced by the music of such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagner, Chabrier and Satie , and shortly after leaving the Conservatoire in 1895 he returned for Fauré’s composition class.
By 1898 Ravel's music was being published and performed, but the Conservatoire was largely unsympathetic to Ravel’s talents and he failed to win a prize several years in a row, eventually forcing him to leave. In 1905 he tried again for the Prix de Rome, but once again broke the rules. However, he was now an established composer (especially with the Quartet of 1903), and the tricky situation forced the director of the Conservatoire to leave his post, allowing Fauré to take over.
The years that followed were sometimes difficult for Ravel. There was violent debate in the press over the merits of his compositional style, and for a while he turned his back on the arguments and composed a large number of works, among them Gaspard de la Nuit, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and Daphnis et Chloé. This last ballet was commissioned by Diaghilev through whom Ravel also met Stravinsky in 1909.
When war broke out in 1914, Ravel was in the middle of a period of concentrated composition. Most of the work was never completed, though his suite Le Tombeau de Couperin survives from this period. The war affected Ravel deeply - he wanted to serve his country but was underweight by two kilograms. He served in the motor transport corps, but felt he wasn’t doing enough. When he contracted dysentery he was moved to Paris to recover, and wanted to compose again, but was deeply affected by the death of his mother.
When Debussy also died shortly afterwards, Ravel was left as the leading figure in French music. The authorities wanted to confer on him the order of the Légion d’honneur, but Ravel refused, as he felt disillusioned with authorities in general. He withdrew from Paris life and moved to Montfort-l’Amaury. His compositional efforts were sluggish and painstaking. He wrote memorials to Debussy and Fauré, and worked on several smaller pieces. He also exercised his genius for orchestration again, most notably with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which was written for piano and which Ravel arranged for orchestra (the version which is most often performed today).
Ravel travelled abroad in Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. In 1928 he travelled to the USA and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. He wrote Bolero whilst orchestrating some music from Albéniz’s Iberia and the Concerto for the Left Hand for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. By 1932, however, Ravel was suffering from Pick’s Disease, which gradually rendered him incapable of even writing his own name. He died in 1937 after an unsuccessful brain operation.