Maurice Ravel: Biography, Compositions & Music

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer and arranger. Since he is better known for a single work, this lesson will help you discover some other great pieces he wrote and more about his life.


Even you didn't see the movie 10, you have probably heard the famous piece near the end of this film. It is music with an incessant, driving rhythm that accompanies a long, spun-out melody repeated by a wide variety of instruments. Nearly fifteen minutes long, it starts out quietly and gradually builds in volume to a huge orchestral climax. That music is Bolero by Maurice Ravel, and it has also been featured in other movies, television shows and even video games.

Maurice Ravel
Image of Maurice Ravel

Sometimes a composer is best remembered for a single popular work, and that is the case with Ravel and Bolero. Which is kind of ironic, since Ravel is quoted several times to have considered it a trivial piece. Still, the composition has an interesting origin story.

In 1928, Ravel made a four-month concert tour in North America and used the opportunity to visit jazz clubs in New Orleans and Harlem. He met George Gershwin at a party, and Gershwin mentioned he would like to study with Ravel during a future trip to Paris he was considering. According to various translations and accounts, the Frenchman gently declined. There is an unconfirmed second part of the story which has Ravel asking Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. Ravel composed Bolero on his return home, and the piece was a financial success.

George Gershwin
Image of George Gershwin

Ravel originally called the work Fandango and conceived it as a dance, although now it is generally presented as a concert piece. Simply put, Bolero is a theme and variations with the variations being an exploration of orchestral timbre and texture. One could think of Ravel as painting with musical color.

Early Life

Ravel was born in the Basque region of France, not far from the Spanish border. His family moved to Paris, where he studied piano and eventually attended the Paris Conservatory. He left there in 1895 and returned two years later to study composition with Gabriel Faure.

Ravel also studied the ability of each instrument carefully and became sensitive to their particular color. This knowledge served him well as he sometimes arranged piano works for orchestra, both for himself and for other composers. An early piano work by Ravel was 'Pavane for a Dead Princess'. Composed in 1899, he transcribed it for orchestra in 1910. This orchestral arrangement is the version frequently heard today.

Ravel also wrote songs and choral works. One in particular from 1907 is called 'Vocal Etude in the form of a Habanera'. It is sung on vowel sounds (no words) and was designed to explore the possibilities of the human voice as an instrument.

Middle Life and Compositions

In the years that followed, Ravel composed many successful pieces, including Spanish Rhapsody, the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, and Mother Goose, which bears the subtitle 'Five Children's Pieces'. This work was written in 1908 as a piano duet for the two children of close friends. Ravel later arranged it for orchestra and then expanded it into a ballet.

In 1909, a French music journal commissioned a series of works to mark the centenary of the death of composer Franz Joseph Haydn. Ravel was among the handful of composers who responded. His contribution was 'Minuet on the Name of Haydn'.

Life was interrupted when France was attacked by Germany in 1914. Ravel had hoped to serve as a pilot but was rejected due to a heart problem. The following year he began working as a truck driver, which was very dangerous work being so close to combat action.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account