Conservatoires in time of war
Maurice Ravel: to enlist or ignore the war?
Joseph Maurice Ravel
7 March 1875 (Ciboure) – 28 December 1937 (Paris)
The son of a railway engineer, Maurice Ravel studied at the Paris Conservatoire from 1889 to 1901, winning a first medal for preparatory piano in 1891, followed by second place in the 1901 Grand Prix de Rome. Tutored by André Gédalge (1856-1926) in counterpoint and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) in composition, Ravel quickly developed a distaste for the academism reigning at the Conservatoire. Each of his five attempts to win the Prix de Rome ended in failure, due to his aesthetic choices that juries found too radical.
Exempted from military service on grounds of “frailty” in 1895, Ravel sought to enlist at the start of the Great War: he could not remain in the rear and let friends such as Maurice Delage and Florent Schmitt risk their lives. His numerous attempts to join the army, in particular the Air Force, finally met with success in March 1915, when he entered the auxiliary service. Here he served in the supply corps, which managed transport and logistics for the regiments. Ravel drove a truck famously nicknamed “Adélaïde”. In September 1916, he was struck down by dysentery. He was transferred back to Paris from 27 October 1916 to 24 January 1917 and declared unfit for service on 1 June 1917, at first temporarily then permanently.
Begun on the eve of the war, the Tombeau de Couperin is one of Ravel’s best-known wartime works, because each movement is dedicated to one of his friends who died at the front. During the first few months of the war, Ravel composed the Trio for piano, violin and cello, then Trois chansons for mixed choir in 1914 and 15. In 1918, he would create Frontispice for two pianos.
Calza, Renato (1998) ‘Ravel e la Grande Guerra: Trois chansons pour chœur (1914-1915) – “Mon ami z-il est à la guerre (… moi, je reste ici, hélas !)”’, Musica e Storia, No. 6/2, p. 421-461.
Manat, Marcel (1986) Maurice Ravel, Paris: Fayard.
Ravel Maurice (1989) Lettres, écrits, entretiens, Paris: Flammarion. Introduced and annotated by Arbie Orenstein.