Paris-Manchester 1918
Conservatoires in time of war

Rejecting blind patriotism

In 1916, and not for the first time, Ravel rejected the nationalistic and revanchist spirit stemming from the defeat of 1871. In 1910, he had already founded the Independent Music Society in reaction against the conservatism of the National Music Society[1] led by Vincent d’Indy[2] and Camille Saint-Saëns.[3] While volunteering in the transport service in March 1915, Ravel was approached by the National League for the Defence of French Music, which wished to “silence modern pan-Germanist Germany[4]“.

Here Ravel makes a courageous response, naming and defending Arnold Schoenberg, a direct target of the League, at a time when German composers – with the exception of Beethoven and Mozart, who were making a gradual comeback – were banned from the Paris concert halls.

War zone 7/6/16


A period of enforced rest has finally given me the chance to reply to the announcement and statutes of the National League for the Defence of French Music that you sent me. Please excuse me for being unable to write to you sooner: various transfers and the trials of military service left me with very little free time until now.

I hope you will also forgive me for being unable to subscribe to your statutes. Careful reading of these and your announcement forbids me to do so.

Of course I have nothing but praise for your “overriding concern for our country’s victory”, which I have shared since the outbreak of hostilities. I therefore fully concur with the “need for action” which led to the National League’s formation. So keenly did feel this need myself that I left civilian life behind when I was not obliged to do so.

Where I cannot follow you is in your assertion that “the art of music has an economic and social role to play”. I have never envisaged music or the other arts in this light.

I am quite happy to let you have those “moving pictures”, “gramophone records” and “writers of popular songs”. All these have little to do with the art of music. I shall even concede you those “Viennese operettas”, although they are more musical and better crafted than our own similar productions. All such material does fall within the “economic” domain.

However, I do not believe that it is necessary “for the preservation of our national artistic heritage” to “forbid the public performance in France of those contemporary German and Austrian works that are not in the public domain”.

“If there is no question of rejecting, for ourselves and younger generations, the classics that constitute one of the immortal monuments of humanity”, then there should be even less question of “expelling from our midst, and for many years” interesting works, destined perhaps in their turn to become monuments one day, and from which, in the meantime, we may learn useful lessons.

It would even be dangerous if French composers were systematically to ignore the works of their foreign counterparts and thus become a sort of nationalist clique: our musical art, so rich at the present moment, would soon degenerate and find itself stuck fast in hackneyed formulas.

It matters little to me that Mr Schoenberg,[1] for example, is an Austrian. He is nonetheless a musician of the highest worth, and his very interesting experiments have had a beneficial influence on certain composers in Allied countries and in France too. What is more, I am delighted that Messrs Bartòk[2] and Kodály[3] and their disciples are Hungarian, and that they show this in their works with such relish.

In Germany, apart from Mr Richard Strauss,[4] we scarcely see any but second-rate composers whose equivalents would be easy to find without crossing our own frontiers. It is however possible that young artists who would be interesting for us here to get to know will be discovered over there.

Furthermore, I do not believe that it is necessary to make all French music predominate in France or to spread it abroad, regardless of its worth,

As you can see, gentlemen, my opinions differ from yours in numerous ways, so much so that I cannot permit myself the honour of joining you.

I hope nonetheless to continue to “act as a Frenchman” and to count myself “among those who intend never to forget that they are French”.

I remain yours sincerely

Maurice Ravel


Maurice Ravel (7 June 1916) Letter to the Committee of the League for the Defence of French Music, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Music Departement, rare book store, Nla 36 (01).

Document description: autograph letter


Manat Marcel (1986) Maurice Ravel, Paris: Fayard.

Ravel Maurice (1989) Lettres, écrits, entretiens, Paris: Flammarion. With introduction and notes by Arbie Orenstein.


[1]Michel Duchesneau, 1997: L’avant-garde musicale et ses sociétés à Paris de 1871 à 1939, Sprimont: éd. Mardaga, p. 65-66 et 80-84.



[4]Notice de la Ligue nationale pour la défense de la musique française, reproduite dans Maurice Ravel, 1989 : Lettres, écrits, entretiens, Paris : Flammarion. Apparat critique realisé par Arbie Orenstein., p. 527-528.

[5]Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).

[6]Béla Bartók (1881-1945).

[7]Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).