Ravel and North America

The Franco-American pianist E. Robert Schmitz had been acquainted with Ravel at least since 1917 when he obtained two days leave from his army service in the trenches to participate in a Paris performance of the Piano trio. (Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.17-18). During the 1920s Schmitz established Pro Musica, a society with branches across the United States devoted to the promotion of French and American contemporary music, and he attempted to persuade Ravel to make a concert tour of America. Ravel however was reluctant, feeling that he was not enough of a pianist to warrant such a high-profile venture. In 1926 however Schmitz offered a guaranteed sum $10,000 for a two-month tour, and Ravel was finally persuaded by the prospect of such a substantial reward. In the event the tour would be even longer, lasting nearly four months, and his earnings still greater. An agreement was made with the Mason and Hamlin Piano Company which paid him $5000 for the exclusive use of their instruments during the tour.

Extensive planning was needed for both repertoire and itinerary, which would take him to nearly twenty cities of the United States and to three in Canada. (Most of the practical organisation was undertaken by the Bogue-Laberge concert management in New York and by Association française d'expansion et d'échanges artistiques in France.) Special arrangements also had to be made to ensure that Ravel would have continuous access to the French brand of Caporal cigarettes without which he would not travel. (Orenstein [1989] p.252).

After various delays Ravel finally left France at the end of December 1927. His visit to America attracted much attention in the musical world, and beyond; the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Welcome Mr. Ravel" (8 January 1928, sec.3, p.4). The reception that he received in individual cities is documented on separate pages. The main outline of his tour was as follows:

4 - 8 January 1928

New York

9 - 14 January

Boston

15 January

New York

18 - 21 January

Chicago

22 - 26 January

Cleveland

1 - 5 February

San Francisco

6 - 8 February

Los Angeles

13 February

Seattle

14 February

Vancouver, Canada

15 February

Portland

19 February

Denver

21 February

Omaha

22 February

Minneapolis

26 February

New York

7 - 12 March

New York

14 March

Kansas City

22 March

Toronto, Canada

29 March

Detroit

30 March - 1 April

New York

2 April

Boston

5 April

New Orleans

6 - 7 April

Houston

8 - 16 April

Phoenix; the Grand Canyon

17 April

Buffalo

19 April

Montréal, Canada

21 April

New York

Some sources also mention visits to Philadelphia, St. Louis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Albany, but these appear to be undocumented. Ravel also visited the house of one of his favourite authors, Edgar Allan Poe (but which? Baltimore? the Bronx?).

Before his departure from France, Ravel's doctor and his friends had been concerned about the effect of such an exhausting tour upon his health. He spent many nights travelling on trains and he moved between climates of extreme heat and cold. But apparently Ravel flourished in these trying conditions, even if he sometimes complained about tiredness and the cold, and in the end he felt invigorated by the experience: "c'est incroyable ce que je rajeunis" (Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.43). He wrote to another friend: "Et je ne serai pas crevé: comme on vous l'a dit, je ne me suis jamais mieux porté que devant cette folle tournée. J'ai fini par en découvrir la raison: c'est que jamais je n'ai mené une vie aussi raisonnable." (Orenstein [1989] letter 298).

A detailed study of Ravel's American tour was made by N.V. Dunfee in a doctoral thesis in 1980, and much of the information presented here is drawn from that source, albeit with some variations.

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