“The only love affair I have ever had was with music,” declared lifelong bachelor, Maurice Ravel. The French composer was small and dapper, much like his music – a relatively modest catalogue of works, but each work exquisitely crafted. Igor Stravinsky, always one with a pithy quote, once described Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers”. Stravinsky probably didn’t realise was that Ravel’s father was a French-Swiss inventor and engineer, so his quip wasn’t so wide of the mark. His mother was from the Basque region of Spain, which explains his natural affinity with Spanish colour and rhythms in some of his most popular scores. 

Maurice Ravel
© Public domain

His ear for colour is evident in his very precise, detailed orchestration. Indeed, one of his finest achievements was his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, painting Mussorgsky’s piano original using a vibrant palette. Ravel and Debussy are often lumped together as “impressionists” on concert programmes and recordings, although both disliked the description. Ravel even wrote, “For Debussy the musician and the man I have had profound admiration, but by nature I’m different from him. I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of the symbolism of Debussy.” 

This playlist contains a great cross-section of Ravel’s music. Every piece is a treasure. The dilemma here was what to leave out – any top ten playlist that omits the likes of Le Tombeau de Couperin or the Introduction et Allegro has to be pretty special!

1Piano Concerto in G major

Opening with a crack of the whip, this concerto is full of jazzy and Basque influences, particularly in its strutting outer movements where the piano is often in dialogue with coquettish woodwinds (and occasionally sleazy brass). The opening movement has three cadenzas, including a delicate one for harp, but it’s the central Adagio assai which is most beautiful, a sublime movement where time seems to stand still, a string of pearls cascading down the keyboard. “That flowing phrase!” Ravel despaired. “How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”

2Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)

Ravel originally composed this as a piano duet, for the children of the sculptor Cyprian Godebski, later transcribing it for solo piano and then orchestrating it in 1911. The title Mother Goose refers to Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales Contes de ma mère l'Oye. The movements depict fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb and Beauty and the Beast, the beast depicted via a growly contrabassoon. The apotheosis of the finale, “Le jardin féerique” (“The fairy garden”) is beautiful, the music blooming into a blaze of orchestral colour. 

3La Valse

This poème chorégraphique was intended as a dance work (entitled Wien) for the Ballets Russes, but impresario Serge Diaghilev rejected it, admitting it was “a masterpiece, but it's not a ballet… it's the portrait of a ballet”. La Valse is Ravel’s sincere tribute to Imperial Vienna and the waltzes of the Strauss family he so admired. Waltzing couples emerge through a hazy mist, finally illuminated in golden light. But the waltz whirls out of control, eventually imploding on itself. Ravel denied that the piece symbolically depicted the collapse of Vienna in the wake of the Great War, but it is often viewed as such, particularly in danced interpretations choreographed by the likes of George Balanchine. 

4Daphnis et Chloé

Here’s a ballet that did score a success with Diaghilev! A pastoral Greek setting, it tells the story of the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, who is abducted by pirates. The god Pan is summoned to rescue her, leading an army of fauns. In the final section (often performed as Suite no. 2, as below), Chloé awakens to an evocative daybreak, finding herself reunited with Daphnis in Pan’s grotto, resulting in a Danse générale that reaches bacchanalian proportions. Ravel described the score as a symphonie chorégraphique and, at nearly an hour, it is his longest non-operatic work.  

5String Quartet in F major

Although Ravel disliked his music being compared to Debussy’s, there are similarities when it comes to his sole string quartet. It follows the same structure as Debussy’s, even down to the use of pizzicato in the second movement. The quartet is an early work, written as Ravel was struggling to emerge as a composer following his dismissal (twice!) from the Paris Conservatoire and his repeated failures to win the coveted Prix de Rome, where his deliberate flouting of the rules made him few friends. The Quartet was Ravel's final submission to the Conservatoire, but rejected by the institution. 

6L'Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells)

Ravel only wrote two operas. The second was based on a libretto by Colette about a naughty little boy who doesn’t want to do his homework. When his mother tells him off, he throws a tantrum at which point the objects in his bedroom come to life: the chairs, teapot and china cup, the shepherds and shepherdesses on the wallpaper. His maths homework becomes a little old man. Even the fire in the fireplace leaps out, a dazzling short coloratura role (see below). Eventually, his good side is revealed in the garden when he tends an injured squirrel and the animals carry him home to his mother. 


In 1898, Ravel considered an opera based on the tales of The Arabian Nights, but abandoned it after only writing the overture, Shéhérazade. Five years later, came a song cycle under the same title, setting three poems by Léon Leclère, who went by the wonderfully Wagnerian pseudonym “Tristan Klingsor”. The longest song, Asie, feverishly describes the exotic Orient of Persia, India and China. 

8Pavane pour une Infante défunte

Another work that originated as a piano piece and he then orchestrated, Ravel said he only chose the title for its euphonious sound, although he later described it as a pavane that would be danced by an Infanta found in a painting by Velázquez. Ravel was particular that the piece shouldn’t be played too slowly: “Remember that I wrote a pavane for a dead princess, and not a dead pavane for a princess!” You can hear what he meant in his own performance, recorded on a piano roll in 1922. 

9Gaspard de la nuit

This suite is in three movements, inspired by a collection of prose poems by Aloysius Bertrand, all with nocturnal connotations. Ondine is a seductive water nymph, luring the poet to the bottom of her lake. Le Gibet takes us to a desert, the setting sun and a lone corpse hanging on a gallows, a bell tolling in the distance. Scarbo is a goblin making pirouettes as its fingernails grate on the silk of the bed curtains. The last is fiendishly difficult, designed by Ravel to be even harder to play than Balakirev’s Islamey


“I've written only one masterpiece – Boléro,” Ravel told Arthur Honegger. “Unfortunately it has no music in it.” Perhaps he was being a bit hard on himself – the melody is a good one – but it’s Ravel orchestration, passing the melody repeatedly to different solo instruments or instrumental groups, that is ingenious, building to a cataclysmic climax and a sudden, brief gear change of keys from C to E major before crashing into a dissonant heap.