15 Mar 2015

Ravel - Maurice the Mechanic

From Composer of the Week, 9:00 am on 15 March 2015
Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel Photo: Public Domain


The French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was once called ‘the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers’ and the label has haunted him beyond the grave. Interest in mechanics seems to have been almost hereditary in Ravel’s family. His father and brother were both engineers and looking further back, his great-great-grandfather was an actual Swiss clock-maker.

We hear this throughout his work, from the use of actual machines: metronomes and pianola; to the use of mechanistic compositional processes in his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and most famously, the robotic and precise opening of Boléro.

Ravel’s brother Eduard tells us:

[Maurice] admired everything which was mechanical, from simple tin toys to the most intricate machine tools. He would thus spend entire days… in front of street vendors’ stalls, and was delighted to come with me to factories or to [exhibitions] of machinery. He was happy to be in the midst of these movements and noises. But he always came out struck and obsessed by the automation of all these machines.

More about Ravel:

  • Introduction to Ravel's String Quartet
  • Introduction to Ravel's Piano Concerto
  • Ravel's La Valse played by the Auckland Philharmonia
  • Ravel and his friendships with Les Apaches