His times: Like his colleague and compatriot Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel was active at a time when the epicentre of musical activity in Europe was moving from the Austro-German cities of Vienna and Berlin to the French capital. Led by a Paris on the cusp of Modernism, musical priorities were changing too. Suddenly beauty was a priority and the ‘development’ of musical themes wasn’t. France was, however, looking to her neighbours for raw inspiration, often east to Russia and south to Spain, a country that long fascinated Ravel (he was actually born in the Basque area of the Pyrenees).
His music: In the spirit of that move away from thematic development, Ravel’s most famous work doesn’t develop its chosen theme at all but simply repeats it over and over again in different orchestral clothing. Bolero, however, is a towering masterpiece and an archetypal slice of Ravel: delicately crafted, ravishingly orchestrated, clipped and disciplined in a formal sense and without any hint of the ‘self’. Cleanliness and craft are the watchwords in Ravel, as well as frequent references to the exoticism of Spain and of the syncopations, freedoms and ‘blue’ notes of jazz.
Himself: Ravel was an aesthete who enjoyed all Paris had to offer socially. But he was also a private man who had a close relationship with his mother and found it hard to believe in the life-changing rapture of sexual love (speculation as to his sexual orientation abounds). It seems very unlikely, though, as one theorist has proposed, that Ravel suffered mental instability.