Ravel and Great Britain

Britain was the country to which Ravel travelled more than any other, making over a dozen visits between 1909 and 1932. He invariably received a warm reception, and he established several lasting friendships in Britain, although he never learned to speak English.


Ravel's first concert abroad took place in London on 26 April 1909 at the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall), and was presented by the Société des Concerts Français. It was a joint concert of music by Ravel and Florent Schmitt, and featured the pianist Mary Vadot (who played the Sonatine) and the singers Jane Bathori and Emile Engel, who were accompanied by Ravel.

The occasion was reviewed in The Times: "The whole programme was full of the liveliest interest, for each composer speaks with a distinct voice of his own, and although they belong to the same school, their works show many points of strong contrast". There followed some detailed observations on Ravel's song settings, admiring the delicacy and restraint of his accompaniments, and his use of "phrases which suggest his ideas without fully expressing them, just as the simple lines of a pencil sketch do. The success of the sketch depends upon every line being exactly in the right place and just sufficient to guide the eye, and M. Ravel's musical phrases fulfil these conditions to the ear in almost every case". "Asie" from Shéhérazade found less favour ("but who could make a pencil sketch of Asia"), but "Le Paon" from Histoires naturelles "was perfect, and so was Mme Bathori's singing of the song". (The Times, 27 April 1909, p.8, col.B).

On this occasion, Ravel stayed with Ralph Vaughan Williams and his wife at their home in Cheyne Walk (VW had studied with Ravel in Paris in the previous year). Ravel's letter of thanks to them clearly shows the enthusiasm that he felt for London, despite his initial apprehensions: "Me voici redevenu parisien. Mais un Parisien qui a la nostalgie de Londres. C'est la première fois qu'il m'arrive de regretter vivement un autre pays." (Orenstein [1989] letter 62).


In January Ravel undertook a short British tour to three cities.

London 19 January. A chamber concert, presented by the Société des Concerts Français, was given at The Limes in Holland Park Gardens (courtesy of Mme Llotard-Vogt), with a programme of works by Ravel, Grovlez and Florent Schmitt, with the Parisian Quartet and Maurice Dumesnil. Ravel played his Sonatine) and accompanied Mme Willaume-Lamber in five songs, including two from Histoires naturelles and Deux épigrammes de Clément Marot. A review in The Times gave most attention to Schmitt's piano quintet, but noted "charming" and "delightful" qualities in Ravel's songs, even though the accompaniment was provided on a "cottage piano" after the first choice of instrument was found to be defective. (The Times, 20 January 1911, p.11, col.E).

Newcastle 20 January. A Classical Society concert was held at the Assembly Rooms in Westgate Road. The first half was devoted to works by Ravel, including the string quartet played by the Parisian Quartet and three of the Histoires naturelles sung by Mme Willaume-Lamber. (Newcastle Daily Chronicle announcement on 16 January 1911, p.10, col.1; but the paper did not review the concert.)

Edinburgh 21 January. As part of the series of Simpson Classical Concerts, this afternoon concert took place at the Music Hall (in the Assembly Rooms George Street ?) and was billed as "the first appearance in Scotland" by Mr Maurice Ravel. The programme included Franck's Piano Quintet, Ravel's string quartet and eight songs sung by Mme Willaume-Lamber accompanied by Ravel. The other performers were the Parisian Quartet and Maurice Dumesnil (who also played piano pieces by other French composers - and gave an encore of a Liszt Rhapsody). The Edinburgh reviewers were divided in their reaction to Ravel's music:

The Scotsman
Monday 23 January 1911, p.7, col.1

[The review began with an extended reflection on the new style of French music which defied the established rules of form and harmony (Franck was excepted from this school). It recognised the originality of Ravel's music but questioned its intelligibility; and the quality of the performers was seen as essential to the success of the concert with an audience.]

"But when the charm and the strangeness and the perfection are admitted, there remains the question whether a new departure in music which is based upon defiance of form can persist. The very fact that Saturday's concert forced such a question upon the cultured concert-goer is a doubtful justification of the too-too French character of the programme".
Edinburgh Evening News
Monday 23 January 1911, p.2, col.3

[The reviewer first commented on the challenging modernity of the concert.] "That in this [modern school of French music] the two well-worn scales, the so-called major and minor, have been discarded, is a fact that must be faced before one can begin to understand and appreciate it... The exquisite music of the new school ... is totally different from the music of a Wagner, or a Schumann. It is simpler and saner. It delights the ear, refreshes the mind, and stimulates the fancy, without arousing the passions. The Ravel quartet, as played by the Parisian string combination on Saturday, will long be remembered by those who heard it as a unique example of 'exquisite music-making', exquisite in form, in thought, and in performance. The eight songs which followed showed the same restraint, the same delicate pencilling and subtle colouring."


In December 1913 Ravel was back in England for several days, starting with a visit to Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex to see Arnold Bennett whom he had got to know in Paris.

Then on 17 December, works by Ravel were included in a concert of contemporary composers at the Bechstein Hall in London.

Ravel's string quartet was played (by a group who included Frank Bridge on the viola), as well as the Introduction et allegro and a group of songs accompanied by Ravel. Of these, a review commented that "what gave most delight was the gossamer delicacy of the accompaniment under the composer's hands", a more favourable response to Ravel's pianism than he often received from critics. (The Times, 18 December 1913, p.11, col.F). This review was followed two days later by an article which made an extensive and detailed analysis of Ravel's musical style making comparisons with Schubert, Brahms and Debussy (The Times, 20 December 1913, p.11, col.D).


The war and personal problems interposed a gap of more than eight years before Ravel returned to London. Arriving on 29 June accompanied by the pianist Robert Casadesus, Ravel spent the following day making a set of piano roll recordings for the firm Aeolian.

On 7 July a concert of Ravel's works took place the Lord Rothermere's London house.

The event was reviewed in The Times which commented: "M. Ravel's own playing was the best thing in the evening - not as playing, exactly, for we have heard more effective performances, but as showing, what the printed notes never can, how he came to think it so and what he puts in the foreground or the background, and, most of all, that there was nothing novel or outrageous about it; it was simply the old music taken hold of by a new handle". (The Times, Monday 10 July, p.12, col.E).

After the concert there was a reception given by Lady Colefax, where Ravel made the acquaintance of Joseph Conrad, beginning a friendship which was warmly valued by both men, although it was curtailed by Conrad's death two years later.


Ravel's visits to Britain were most frequent during the mid-1920s.

On 12 April, he arrived in London after a trip to Italy, and on 14 April he conducted part of a concert by the Queen's Hall Orchestra (Ma mère l'oye and La Valse); the remainder of the concert was conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The Times commented: "His baton is not the magician's wand of the virtuoso conductor. He just stood there beating time and keeping watch, getting everything into its right place... Ma mère l'oye has never sounded so simple and childlike; the introduction to La Valse had an unusual clarity..." (The Times, Monday 16 April 1923, p.15, col.E).

Ravel was back at the Queen's Hall on 18 October for a chamber concert of his works, and once again The Times dissected his style:

"Not so well-attended as it might have been. Ravel conducts with a wrist as steady and supple and with as much economy of unnecessary motions as a man might practise with his razor... He plays the piano in the low-pitched tone of ordinary conversation, as if he were merely telling you the common-sense of the matter... It is no music of the passions... It takes a simple delight in the curious variety of things... It is grotesquely detached and vividly true". (The Times, Friday 19 October, p.10, col.C).


On 26 April, an all-Ravel concert at the Aeolian Hall included the first performance of Tzigane, with Jelly d'Aranyi.

The hitherto appreciative tone of The Times reviewers was on this occasion reversed in a virtuoso piece of malicious prose: "To hear a whole programme of his work is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things within a limited scope. Moreover, the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated, of most of M. Ravel's music is almost repulsive when heard in bulk: even its beauties are like the markings on snakes and lizards." (The Times, Monday 28 April 1924, p.10, col.C).


At the end of May 1925, Ravel returned to London to stay with the Hardings in Holland Park, in order to meet the American Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who had commissioned from him the Chansons madécasses. (Orenstein [1989], letter 253).


Early in 1926 Ravel undertook a tour of several north-European countries, which included four concerts in Great Britain:
  London - 23 February
  Glasgow - 24 February
  Edinburgh - 25 February
  Bridge of Allan - 26 February
In these concerts he was joined by the 20-year old violinist Zino Francescatti who played Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré and Tzigane. In London Ravel again stayed with the Hardings. After appearing in three concerts in Scotland, Ravel returned to Paris on 1 March. (Chalupt [1956] pp.217-218; Orenstein [1989], letter 263.)

Perhaps surprisingly, the Edinburgh concert was neither advertised nor reviewed in the local press, (The Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News), and the London performance was not given a notice in The Times. However a copy of the programme for the concert in Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, is preserved in the Dr W. Welsh Trust Collection in the Bridge of Allan Library, giving a detailed account of its content; it is not clear whether an identical programme was given at the other venues.


On 27 February Ravel was in Edinburgh. He had come for a performance of his Piano Trio, and took the opportunity for a little sightseeing too, as a postcard of Loch Lomond testifies. (Chalupt [1956] p.218). The circumstances of this visit are otherwise unclear since the concert was not advertised or reviewed in the Edinburgh press.

In late October (26/27) Ravel came to London to make some recordings for the firm of Brunswick (though these never seem to have been issued). (Orenstein [1989] letter 282, to Louise Alvar Harding).


Ravel came to London for a concert devoted to his works at the Aeolian Hall on 19 October.

It proved highly popular and people had to be turned away (and a repeat concert was announced for early the following year). (The Times, Saturday 20 October 1928, p.10, col.C). The programme included the first British performance of the Chansons madécasses. Among those who heard at least part of the concert was Ravel's old friend Arnold Bennett (A. Bennett, Journals, vol.3, p.278. Cassell, 1928).

A few days later Ravel was in Oxford to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Music.

On 23 October in the Sheldonian Theatre, an address was given by the Public Orator A.B. Poynton, and among those attending the ceremony were E.J. Dent, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Lennox Berkeley. In the evening Ravel took part in a concert of his works in Oxford Town Hall with a programme similar to the London one a few days earlier. (The Times, Wednesday 24 October 1928, p.8, col.D).


A repeat concert promised in October of the previous year was given on 16 January, again at the Aeolian Hall, but with a slightly amended list of works. Ravel's name in the programme now carried his new title of "Dr Maurice Ravel".

Further honours were paid to Ravel on 24 January when a luncheon was held for him by the Anglo-French Luncheon Club at the Princes' Restaurant in London. An address was given by Sir Hugh Allen, the Director of the Royal College of Music. (The Times, Friday 25 January 1929, p.14, col.E).


Ravel travelled to London to conduct two performances at Covent Garden on 7 and 8 July. La Valse and Boléro were being performed there by Ida Rubinstein's company. (Orenstein [1989] letter 323).


Ravel's last recorded visit to Britain took place on 25 February when he conducted the first British performance of his Piano concerto in G with Marguerite Long, at the Queen's Hall in London. (The rest of the programme, including Goossens's oboe concerto, was conducted by Malcolm Sargent.) (The Times, Monday 22 February 1932, p.10, col.C: the concert announcement. No reviews were published in the paper.)