Maurice Ravel’s Uncommon Courage

Maurice Ravel made his name and fortune as a composer before the First World War, on the strength of the haunting “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” from Ma mère l’Oye (1912), the rousing “Danse générale” from Daphnis et Chloé (1909–12) and the heartbreaking “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (1899, 1910).

Despite his fame and poor health, Ravel enlisted at the age of 40 and served in the 13th Artillery Regiment during the Great War. However — refusing to buy into Allied cultural propaganda — he declined to support a wartime ban on German music, writing “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the productions of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art, which is so rich at the present time, would soon degenerate, becoming isolated in banal formulas.”

In response, the National League for the Defense of French Music banned Ravel’s works for the balance of the war. Meanwhile, the composer continued his military service: driving a munitions truck under fire on the front lines, enduring dysentery and frostbite, and coping with the deaths of friends and family.

The Great War influenced Ravel’s later works. He composed Le tombeau de Couperin (1917, 1919) in tribute to comrades lost in battle. For Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian veteran who lost his right arm in the war, Ravel wrote the ingenious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1930). The piece incorporates some jazz inflections, in keeping with his conviction that French composers should be open to international influence.

Spanish music inspired Ravel’s best-known and most enduring work, the iconic Boléro (1928). Sadly — like many great works of art, the piece has been diminished somewhat by an excess of appreciation — from overplay by symphonies and classical radio to overuse in soundtracks and guilt by association with undistinguished Hollywood productions.

Rock breathed new life into the composition. Ravel inspired Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page to record “Beck’s Bolero” (1967), which later influenced an interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” (1969). However, a power trio — the James Gang — produced the finest rock adaptation of Ravel’s masterpiece in “The Bomber” (1970). In the suite’s middle section, the band interprets an excerpt from Boléro with remarkable fidelity: Jim Fox’s crisp drumming lays down the iconic beat while Joe Walsh psychedelically warps Ravel’s melodies on an effects-drenched, echoing electric guitar.

Ravel’s estate rewarded the James Gang for their virtuosity with a lawsuit. Although the band’s label had secured permission for the trio to record the piece, the record company failed to notice that the contract required playing Boléro in its entirety with original instrumentation (i.e., a full orchestra, not a rock band).

The resulting legal hassle forced the record company to gut “The Bomber” by cutting the “Boléro” section out of the middle. The complete original recording of the James Gang song remained unavailable for nearly a decade, until the French copyright lapsed.

Ironically, the position of Ravel’s heirs in this matter betrayed their ancestor’s demonstrated generosity of spirit and openness to liberal borrowing in the arts.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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