Ravel and Belgium

Yacht Aimée

Ravel's first journey outside France took the form of a seven-week canal trip during June and July 1905, on board the yacht Aimée which belonged to Misia and Alfred Edwards. Their route took them through Belgium, Holland and Germany, and Ravel described his experiences in a series of letters to Maurice Delage (Chalupt, [1956] p.29-43).

Ravel joined the expedition at Soissons, and other guests already on board included the painters Pierre Laprade and Pierre Bonnard. For Ravel the holiday provided an immense relief from the furore which had broken out over his exclusion from the Prix de Rome, and also from an intensive period of work to complete the Introduction et allegro.

They travelled northwards through the Ardennes and into Belgium, stopping at Liége, then to Holland with a week in Amsterdam; then up the Rhine into Germany (Düsseldorf, Köln, Koblenz and Frankfurt); then back into Holland (Dordrecht, Veere, Middelburg and Vlissingen) and along the Belgian coast (Oostende); finally returning to France at Le Havre.


On board the Aimée, Ravel arrived in Liége on 11 June, in wintry rain. Passing through an industrial quarter, he was struck by the factories ("magnifiques et singulières") and compared one to a romanesque cathedral in cast-iron with armour-plating ("une cathédrale romane en fonte supportant un cuirassé boullonné"). (Chalupt, [1956] p.32). This was one of many occasions when Ravel's imagination was captured by the noise and spectacle of industry at work.

The yacht anchored in Liége for two days, allowing the party to visit the Exposition Universelle which was then on show. Ravel described seeing Senegalese villages, switchback rides with water plunges, and aeroplane displays. He found Liége to be a pretty and lively town and it left him in a good humour (Chalupt, [1956] p.33).

Another highlight in Ravel's memory was passing through the port of Antwerp, probably on the way to Amsterdam; ("ce que j'ai vu hier sera gravé au coin de l'oeil, en compagnie du port d'Anvers"). (Chalupt, [1956] p.38).

After spending time in Holland and Germany, the voyage touched the Belgian coast on its return journey, calling at Ostend on 21 July for a day or two. Ravel was contemplating a visit to Bruges from there but it is not known whether he achieved it. (Chalupt, [1956] p.42).


It was many years before Ravel's next recorded visit to Belgium. In January (or February) 1921 he was in Brussels for a performance of L'Heure espagnole, which delighted him. He wrote a letter to the directors of La Monnaie thanking them for "la représentation parfaite". (Orenstein, [1989] letter 174).


Ravel went to Belgium for a "Festival Ravel", a concert devoted to his works, firstly in Brussels on 26 April followed by a repeat performance in Antwerp on 27 April. The programme included the Quatuor, played by the Quatuor Bruxellois, Shéhérazade sung by Marie Anne Weber-Delacre with accompaniment by Ravel on piano, the Introduction et allegro conducted by Ravel, and a selection of his piano works (Cahiers Maurice Ravel, no 14 [2011], pp.53-58: "Ravel, interprète de ses oeuvres en 1923 et 1932 à Anvers").


On 22 May Ravel was in Brussels for a recital in which he accompanied the soprano Germaine Sanderson, in a programme that included Ronsard à son âme (Orenstein, [1989] letter 230; Nichols, [2011] p.262, p.396).


During 1926 Ravel made several visits to Belgium. In late January Brussels was the first stop on a long European tour, on which he was accompanied by the singer Louise Alvar, and he also visited rehearsals for his opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges which was to be given at La Monnaie (Marnat, [1988] p.584). On 4 March Ravel returned to Brussels to see a performance of the opera which he greatly approved of ("réalisation charmante, un peu 'arts décoratifs'" (Orenstein, [1989] letter 266)). After the performance he was honoured onstage as the King of Belgium presented him with the award of Chevalier de l'Ordre de Léopold (Marnat, [1988] p.585).

And in mid-May, Ravel may have been in Brussels again at the Egmont Palace for the second performance of Chansons madécasses (a few days after their première in Rome on 8 May) though it is not clear whether he was actually present at the performance. (Larner [1996] p.192).

On 2 October, La Valse was staged as a ballet for the first time at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. The choreography was by Sonia Korty. There is no definite evidence that Ravel attended any of the performances, but it was clearly a significant event for him and he mentioned it in his Esquisse autobiographique. (Ravel [1938]; Nichols [2011] p.282).


Ravel returned to Belgium in March 1931 for a Ravel festival at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, for the benefit of disabled war veterans. While he was there, he met the composer Ottorino Respighi, and was the guest of honour at an afternoon of recent recordings of his works, organised by the Société des Arts et Sciences du Son (Marnat, [1988] p.646).


Ravel's last recorded visit to Belgium was early in 1932 as part of the tour that he made with Marguerite Long to promote his new Concerto pour piano et orchestre en sol majeur. They gave performances in Brussels, Liége, and Antwerp. (Long, [1971] p.63).