Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

About 1977 I attended some composition and theory classes through St. John’s University. The emphasis was on early 20th century composers.

Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg, Berg, Prokofiev, Bartok, and Debussy were the main focus. But Maurice Ravel became my favorite and remains so until this day. 

At the time, a friend of mine who was majoring in piano performance (and with whom I played in a small jazz combo), was studying “La Valse,” by Ravel, as his performance piece. This is was my entry point into the beautiful sound garden of Maurice Ravel.

I can’t think of a single piece composed by this marvelous composer and interesting man that I don’t cherish.

In fact, Ravel’s music is very much like nourishing comfort food to me. I don’t always immerse myself in it, but I return to it, especially in times when I need reminding how beautiful and meaningful music is. This music is so special to me that I ration it.  

Ravel combines bittersweet elements that are at once childlike and incredibly mature and poignant at the same time.

I became such a Ravel enthusiast that I collected every book in English written about him or his music. I consequently have 23 different books about Ravel in my personal library.

When I read that on his only tour of America in 1928, he played in Minneapolis, I went to the Minnesota History Museum library and photocopied all the local newspaper accounts of his visit to Minnesota from microfiche.

On trips to Paris, I would make pilgrimages to his unique little house (now a museum) outside of Paris in Montfort l’Amaury. The house is a menagerie of small objet d’art, rare books, and curios which reflect his personality and music.

On these visits, I got to know the curator and she became very interested in the newspaper accounts I had collected from the 1928 Minneapolis visit Ravel made on his tour. I sent them to her and they are now in their archives.

I have developed email relationships with two of his biographers.
In other words, in my own small way, I have become a sort of amateur Ravel expert.

Recently, I have been listening to the great BBC radio series on Ravel. In that series, which can be easily accessed online, almost every aspect of his curious life (he was fastidious as a composer and in his dress and grooming) and his charming music is discussed. In short, Ravel is a hero for me and I don’t have many heroes. For me Ravel is a true genius and I use that term very infrequently.

Miecyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) / composer

There were several things that drew me to Weinberg and his music. The first thing was that his birth date of December 8 is something I share with him. Secondly, he is of Polish origin (another thing I have in common with him), though he lived most of his life in Russia and is known as a Russian composer.
The first paragraph of his biography reads:
“There are composers whose lives were marked by the cataclysms of the ‘short twentieth century’; there are composers who deserve far more space than they have been allocated in histories of music; there are composers who were exceptionally prolific. Mieczyslaw Weinberg presents a rare case of all three in one.”
His life was tragic and heroic. He escaped the Holocaust in Poland only to live and work in Russia, and later be imprisoned there for charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” Only through the intervention of his friend Shostakovich was he eventually released.
Reflecting the tragedies and resolutions of his life, his music can be bright and hopeful one moment and despairing the next. Though he is not well known here (or in Russia for that matter), some consider him “the third great Soviet composer along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich.”
Towards the end of his life, Weinberg suffered from Crohn’s disease and remained housebound for the last three years, although he continued to compose. It has been claimed he converted to Orthodox Christianity less than two months before his death in Moscow.
At any rate, I am currently exploring the life and music of this man.
May I suggest for a first listen of Weinberg “Fantasia, Opus 52.”