Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Maurice Ravel


Best remembered today for Bolero, Ravel (1875-1937) was a popular classical composer during his lifetime. Born in the Basque village of Ciboure, practically on the border with Spain, he grew up in Paris, where he gave his first public piano recital at age 14. Many speculate that he carried on affairs with Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes and Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, although he did not flaunt his homosexuality in public. Viñes, known as the teacher of gay composer Francis Poulenc, championed the piano compositions of Ravel, performing the premieres of many of them.

Ravel collected books about bizarre sexual practices and hid a secret stash of pornography. He would sometimes entertain the members of the all-male “Les Apaches”(hooligans) society by dressing as a ballerina, complete with tutu and falsies, while dancing on pointe. Still, there is no evidence that he had a lasting personal relationship with anyone of either sex. Several biographers claim that his sole emotional relationship was with his mother.

Extremely closeted, Ravel was somewhat shy, dignified and retiring in public, always carefully observing the men dancing together at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a Parisian cabaret-bar, but never joining in himself. Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc were regulars there. Friends say that Ravel had a prized collection of gay pornography, which he amassed after his service in the French Army during WW I.

Although handsome, Ravel was sensitive about his short physical stature (5'2" tall on a good day), and was often teased for dressing like a dandy. He shared a sharp and keen wit with his close companions, although he had the reputation of a somewhat snobbish intellectual. Ravel studied composition with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory, abandoning a career as a concert pianist, but he was a poor student and was subsequently dismissed. One of his major musical talents was as an orchestrator, and he became known for compositions depicting Spanish landscapes and folk melodies. Igor Stravinsky called Ravel’s ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé "one of the most beautiful products of all French music", and other critics claimed it was Ravel's “most impressive single achievement, as it is his most opulent and confident orchestral score". The work is notable for its rhythmic diversity, lyricism, and evocations of nature.

With Claude Debussy’s death, Ravel became the foremost composer of French classical music. As Fauré stated in a letter to Ravel in October 1922, “I am happier than you can imagine about the solid position which you occupy and which you have acquired so brilliantly and so rapidly. It is a source of joy and pride for your old professor.” Around that time Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.

Jeux d’eau (Fountains), a landmark piano composition. Its influence on Poulenc is obvious, even to an untrained ear. Martha Argerich is the pianist.



In 1928 Ravel made a wildly successful four-month conducting tour of 25 U.S. cities, where he was greeted with standing ovations and much adulation, in pointed contrast to his rather tepid reception at his premieres in Paris. The solid success of this American tour cemented Ravel’s international reputation as a serious composer. While in NYC he met American composer George Gershwin. There is a story that when Gershwin met Ravel, he mentioned that he would like to study with the French composer. According to Gershwin, the Frenchman retorted, "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?" Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. In the jazz clubs of Harlem and New Orleans Ravel soaked up the sounds of jazz, which he incorporated into later compositions, particularly the pianos concertos.

Upon his return to France, Ravel was bemused by the change in his reception by the French public and critics (all for the better). He began recording or supervising the recording of his major works, so today we have a direct link to the composer’s intentions. He wrote Bolero, his most famous composition, in 1928, immediately after his American tour. He intended it as ballet music, and intentionally meant for there to be no musical development, just a protracted crescendo of a single theme repeated to great effect. It was a tour de force of orchestration, distinctive in its incorporation of saxophones in a symphony orchestra.

Four years later Ravel received a blow to the head in a taxi accident, which he brushed off as not serious at the time. However, symptoms of absentmindedness and difficulty with speaking and communicating soon became evident. Five years after the 1932 accident he consented to experimental brain surgery, because he was no longer able to write down his musical ideas. Tragically, he died from complications from the surgery.

In this excerpt from his Piano Concerto in G (Movement 1), Leonard Bernstein conducts from the keyboard. By the 1:35 mark, the influence of Gershwin is undeniable, both rhythmically and harmonically.

4 comments:

  1. I never knew that Ravel visited New Orleans. Fascinating information here.

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  2. happy new year! thanks for your great blog!

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  3. Here's to a wonderful 2015. Keep up the great work. Love, love, love your blog.

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  4. There isn't a shred of evidence that Ravel had any kind of sexual relationship with either Falla or Vines. None. Even Benjamin Ivry, in his fine biography of Ravel, makes no such claim, though he does speculate that Ravel was a "closeted homosexual." There's no genuine evidence either way.

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