"L'Espagne est ma seconde patrie musicale" - Ravel

"Comment m'expliquer l'hispanisme subtilement authentique de notre musicien, sachant de son propre aveu qu'il n'avait avec notre pays que des relations de voisinage, pour être né près de la frontière? Je résolus rapidement le problème: l'Espagne de Ravel était une Espagne idéalement pressentie au travers de sa mère de qui l'exquise conversation, toujours en espagnol excellent, me ravissait, quand elle évoquait devant moi ses années de jeunesse passées à Madrid... Je compris alors quelle fascination avait exercé sur son fils, depuis l'enfance, ces obsédantes évocations nostalgiques, avivées sans doute par cette puissance que communique à tout souvenir le thème de chanson ou de danse qui s'y lie d'inséparable façon."

Manuel de Falla in La Revue musicale [1938], quoted in Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.152.

Ravel and Spain

One half of Ravel's first published composition, Sites auriculaires, was based on the Spanish dance rhythm of the Habanera, and Spain continued to be an inspiration for his music throughout his life. Other early works included the Alborada del gracioso from Miroirs, the Rapsodie espagnole (in which the Habanera re-appeared) and his opera L'Heure espagnole - and it seems that all of these were written before Ravel had actually visited Spain in person. He benefited from the influence of his Basque mother, as well as his friend Ricardo Viñes, but it was a marvel to many, including Manuel de Falla, that he should instinctively have achieved such an authentic sense of Spanish style.


In September and October 1911 Ravel made one or more trips into Spain, perhaps the first occasion on which he was able to spend much time there. On 8 September he was in an unspecified place in Spain and already feeling so much at home there as to regard it as his own country: in a note sent to the Spanish composer Joaquín Turina (then based in Paris), he signed off with the greeting, "De votre (ou de ma) patrie mille amitiés dévouées". (Orenstein [1989] letter 87)

At the end of September he made a car journey around the Basque country (on both sides of the border) in the company of the critic and future politician Léon Blum, the pianist Alfred Cortot, and the composer Gustave Samazeuilh. (Orenstein [1989] letter 88; and Rousseau-Plotto [2004] p.84-89). Samazeuilh gave an account of the trip in "Maurice Ravel et le Pays Basque" (in La Revue musicale [1938]).

On 13 October Ravel was again on the Spanish side of the border at Fuenterrabia, as his holiday came to an end (Orenstein [1989] letter 89).


At the end of August or early in September 1913, after finishing the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ravel made some further short journeys into Spain (no details known). (Orenstein [1989] letter 107).


At the beginning of 1924 Ravel was eager to become better acquainted with Spain ("le pays que je désire le plus vivement connaître") and in January he wrote to Manuel de Falla exploring the possibility of arranging a concert in Madrid, a city which he had not yet visited in spite of feeling a special attachment to it because of the time his mother had spent there in her youth (Orenstein [1989] letter 229). He already had plans for a chamber recital in Barcelona in late February, but conflicting engagements of other performers seem to have prevent any visits taking place until May (Orenstein [1989] letter 230).

On 27/28 April Ravel travelled by train from London to Madrid to begin rehearsals for an orchestral concert. On 4 May he conducted La Valse and his orchestrations of Debussy's Sarabande and Danse - and was complimentary about the orchestral players, who forgave the limitations of his command of Spanish. Ravel then returned briefly to St Jean-de Luz, but on 18 May the delayed visit to Barcelona took place for a concert organised by the Associació de Música da Camera; Ravel was joined for this by Marcelle Gerar and the Trio Casadesus (Rousseau-Plotto [2004] p.158-159).

After the Barcelona concert Ravel toured the late-opening cafés of the city, in one of which he was recognised by a violinist and fêted with a performance of his Habanera. When asked what he would like to hear next, he asked for jazz - to the discomfiture of the musicians who were untrained in the style. (Chalupt [1956] p.207).


On 15 October Ravel completed a new work with a Spanish inspiration, Boléro, which was to be presented for the first time as a ballet at the Paris Opéra by Ida Rubinstein on 22 November. Ravel however was not to be there for the première: from 10 November he undertook an 18-day tour of Spain and Portugal, with the singer Madeleine Grey and the violinist Claude Lévy. (Marnat [1986] p.639).

The Spanish venues included:

  Bilbao : Ravel conducted the symphony orchestra of Bilbao at the Sociedad Filarmónica - and tried to communicate in Basque, only to find that his dialect was not well understood in this part of the country. (Rousseau-Plotto [2004] p.189).
  Zaragoza : which included a visit to the basilica of Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
  Granada : the concert was presented by Manuel de Falla, whose friendship with Ravel dated from 1907. Falla was a resident of Granada.
  Malaga : Ravel complained that here he caught a severe cold beneath the coconut trees (Orenstein [1989] letter 305). The audience at the concert found his music rather modern for their taste and gradually left during the performance; at the end when the performers were almost alone Ravel remarked to Madeleine Grey that he appreciated an audience which had the courage of its convictions. (Marnat [1986] p.640).
  Madrid : the concert at the French embassy was more enthusiastically received, but while playing the Sonatine Ravel had a memory lapse and jumped straight from the exposition to the coda, leaving out most of the piece. This loss of concentration was perhaps an early hint of the condition which was to overshadow his later years.
(Marnat [1986] p.640).


Ravel was present at a Basque celebration of his music which was held at San Sebastián on 28 August at the Teatro Gran Kursaal. The programme was an unusual mixture of orchestral, chamber and piano works, as well as solo and choral songs. (Rousseau-Plotto [2004] p.219-220).


As Ravel's health and morale deteriorated, on 15 February he and Léon Leyritz set out on a journey across Spain to Morocco, where they stayed for three weeks before making the return trip. On their outward route they stopped in Madrid where Ravel was still able to gide his friend to a chapel which he remembered from a previous visit; it was decorated entirely with paintings by Goya (Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.222). They also visited the Escorial, before making their way to Algeciras to catch a ferry to Morocco.

On the way back, they spent time in Andalusia. Leyritz introduced his home town of Seville to Ravel, who seemed as much at home there as he was. They attended a bull fight and heard La Niña de los Peines singing the Canto Jondo in a midnight concert which did not actually start until 2am. Once again Ravel was touched to receive greetings from young Spanish musicians.

They continued to Córdoba, and then up to Burgos and Vitoria and Pamplona, where Ravel's sumptuously decorated hotel room had belonged to Sarasate. (Jourdan-Morhange [1945] p.228-230).

Ravel had appeared to be so invigorated by this trip that in August Leyritz again took him into the Basque districts of Spain, calling at Bilbao, Burgos, Pamplona and Roncesvalles. But in spite of the diversion of these travels, Ravel's condition continued to grow worse, and this last view of the Basque country marked the end of his travels outside France. (Rousseau-Plotto [2004] p.230).