Sometimes it takes a pressing deadline to get the creative juices flowing. In August 1914, Ravel had been working on a piano trio for four months and had recently taken several weeks off and relaxing. He was apparently in no particular rush to complete his new play.
So First World War past. France immediately announced a general mobilization of its forces and Ravel insisted on serving his country. But first, he thought the Piano Trio had to be finished, not least because the idea of composing it had been brewing for six years before it began. “I wrote my trio, now all I need is the themes,” he told a friend at one point. Suddenly, as the French and German armies were engaged in combat, the race was on for him to get the Piano Trio in the bag.
A fever of activity followed. “I work on the Trio with the certainty and lucidity of a madman”, Fraying written, a few days after France entered the war on August 3. Partly because he already had the basic form of the Trio in his head, work progressed quickly. By August 29, the piece was finished and ready for the printer. “The idea that I had to leave right away made me do five months of work in five weeks! “, he confided to his friend Stravinsky. “I have never worked with a madder, more heroic intensity,” he explained in another letter.
There was only one obstacle left: to join the French army and join the war effort. It wasn’t as easy as Ravel had expected. Previously, at age 20, he had been exempted from regular conscription for health reasons. Now approaching 40, heart disease and short stature were the problems. An initial application for Air Force membership was rejected. But Ravel persists and, six months later, he is finally accepted as a truck driver.
Although sometimes prosaic – for a time he maintained military vehicles in Paris – Ravel’s war work was by no means permanently free of danger. In March 1916, he was assigned to the front at Verdun, transporting gasoline and other ammunition. “Day and night without light on incredible roads with a load double of what my truck should carry”, he wrote. “And even so, I had to hurry because it was all within reach.
Already a famous composer when hostilities broke out, he could easily have avoided his wartime service. “At his age and with his name, he could have had an easier place, or done nothing”, comments Stravinsky. Ravel was, however, a “little man of steel”, as one observer put it, and a proud patriot. And as he contemplated joining the army in those early days of August 1914, he had his eyes clear on what might come, at one point even calling his new piano trio a “posthumous work” – which means he could easily be dead and buried. at the time of its first performance.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The new Trio had its public premiere at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on January 28, 1915, attracting limited wartime attention. Ravel himself did not emerge entirely unscathed from the conflict – various ailments led to a parole from the army in 1917, by which time he was “depressed, thin and suffering from neurasthenia”.
He recovered enough to complete the piano suite Couperin’s Tomb that same year. Although its six movements are dedicated to friends he lost during the war, the tone of the work as a whole is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. “The dead are quite sad, in their eternal silence”, explained Ravel.
We named Ravel one of the best French composers of all time and one of the 10 greatest composers of all time