Maurice Ravel, the gifted composer, pianist and trendsetter, was sui generis: a remarkable genius of refined sensibilities. Roger Nichols, the author of a wonderful new biography of Ravel, employs the word pudeur to describe the composer. It’s a French word. Pudeur is a noun that is defined as a “sense of modesty, decency, propriety; a sense of shame, especially in sexual matters.” Nichols follows the example of his subject, producing a graceful biography of supreme refinement.
Born in 1875 at St. Jean de Luz, Ravel grew up in the Basque country of France. His mother, uneducated like many women of the day, came from a family of Basque fish-vendors, while his father was an educated man – an engineer – who, through being at the right place at the right time in history, became successful and wealthy.
From the outset there was no question what direction Ravel’s career path would take. He was a child prodigy, displaying prodigious musical ability at a very young age. Thus he attended the Conservatoire in Paris, where white-haired Gabriel Faure was his teacher. Faure wrote what were called ‘miniatures.’ And his status was built on the foundation of chamber music, song settings of symbolist poems, and short compositions for solo piano. Faure’s musical goal was to “shrink the units of which music was constructed and to aim for an effect on the listener’s feelings that would be more direct, more immediate, and above all more momentary.” The elderly man’s musical philosophy rubbed off on the young Ravel.
Nichols points out that genius, as a phenomenon, has a lot to do with exceptional energy, focused, analytical, imaginative energy yoked to original thought. This amazing energy was the source of Ravel’s genius.