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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Maurice Ravel

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

In the early 20th century classical music appeared to be going down two wildly divergent paths. One path, blazed by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, was harsh and dissonant Expressionism, the ancestor of pure atonality. The other path was the luxurious, sensuous language of Impressionism, initiated by Debussy and then arguably perfected by Maurice Ravel. Ravel is remembered as a phenomenal orchestrator and a deft composer who found inspiration from sources as diverse as jazz, baroque, and Spanish folk music. Let’s unravel this titan of classical music and learn about his unique style.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Maurice Ravel.


PAVANE FOR A DEAD PRINCESS

One of Ravel’s first notable works was 1899’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, composed first for solo piano and then for a small orchestra a decade later. A pavane is a slow, processional dance played in 16th-century era European royal courts. Ravel, fascinated with baroque and early classical music, stated that the piece was designed to evoke the pavanes the Spanish Infanta might have danced to during the Renaissance. He dedicated the piece to his patron, the Princesse de Polignac.


RAPSODIE ESPAGNOLE Rapsodie Espagnole was Ravel’s first published piece for orchestra. Although he was a Frenchman, Ravel was fascinated by Spanish music and frequently drew upon it in his compositions. Prélude à la nuit (Prelude to the Night), the Rapsodie’s first movement, introduces a four-note descending motif that returns in the second and fourth movements (Malagueña and Feria, respectively). The third movement, Habanera, is in 2/4 time and typically played in a drowsy, languorous style evoking its namesake slow Cuban dance.


DAPHNIS ET CHLOÉ

Daphnis et Chloé is Ravel’s most famous ballet. The ballet’s story comes from a pastoral tale by the Greek writer Longus about the two titular foundlings falling in love on the island of Lesbos. Chloe is abducted by pirates and Daphnis prays to the god Pan to rescue her. Part II of the ballet begins with Pan’s arrival, announced by an a capella choir singing an eerie, ethereal chorus. In Part III the lovers are reunited, and in a section called “Pantomime” re-enact the story of Pan and Syrinx, accompanied by a floating, uncertain flute solo. The ballet ends with a climactic bacchanal.


TOMBEAU DE COUPERIN

Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a suite for piano, but Ravel later wrote an orchestral arrangement for all but two of its six movements. The piece’s name means essentially “A Memorial for Couperin.” Ravel wanted to create a work in the spirit of the Baroque keyboard suite created by his dedicatee, 17th century composer Francois Couperin. The orchestral version is divided into four movements. Following the Prélude, each movement is named for a specific dance: the Forlane, the Menuet, and the vivacious Rigaudon. This is an excellent piece for first-time listeners of Ravel.


BOLÉRO

Regarding Boléro, Ravel would famously say “I’ve written only one masterpiece…unfortunately it has no music in it.” Boléro was intended as a score for an Ida Rubinstein ballet, but it has since acquired a life of its own apart from the ballet. The piece features a simple, insistent theme undergirded by a snare-drum. The theme doesn’t develop but rather gradually builds in intensity with ever-increasing orchestration. Boléro concludes with a sudden, dramatic modulation from C major to E major, a triumphant release of the tension that has built throughout the piece.


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Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Ravel and his colleague Debussy were leading figures in musical Impressionism. The name isn’t an accident; their style had much in common with painters of the same time.

  • It is easy to dismiss Ravel as just “the composer of Boléro” without considering his crucial role in the development of musical modernism. Learn what a professor has to say about that role in this article.

  • Ravel saw great value in American jazz, long before many of his contemporaries. Discover how it influenced him in this article.

  • If you enjoy Ravel’s Spanish-flavored works you may also like the music of Manuel de Falla.

 

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