Sometimes it takes a pressing deadline to set the creative juices flowing. By August 1914 Ravel had been working on a Piano Trio for four months, and had recently taken several weeks off for rest and relaxation. He was, seemingly, in no particular hurry to bring his new piece to completion.

Then World War One happened. France immediately announced a general mobilisation of its forces, and Ravel was keen to be of service to his country. First, though, he thought the Piano Trio should be finished, not least because the idea of composing it had gestated for six years before he started. ‘I’ve written my trio, now all I need are the themes,’ he told a friend at one point. Suddenly, with French and German armies locked in combat, the race was on for him to get the Piano Trio in the bag.

A fever of activity followed. ‘I am working on the Trio with the sureness and lucidity of a madman,’ Ravel wrote, days after France entered the war on 3 August. Partly because he already had the basic shape of the Trio in his head, work proceeded quickly. By 29 August, the piece was finished and ready for the printer. ‘The idea that I should be leaving at once made me do five months’ work in five weeks!’, he informed his friend Stravinsky. ‘I have never worked with more insane, more heroic intensity’, he explained in another letter.

Just one obstacle remained – getting into the French military and joining the war effort. This was not as easy as Ravel had expected. Earlier, at age 20, he had been exempted from regular conscription for health reasons. Now, approaching 40, a heart condition and his small stature were the issues. An initial application to join the Air Force was rejected. But Ravel persisted, and six months later he was finally accepted as a lorry driver.

Though at times prosaic – for a while he serviced military vehicles in Paris – Ravel’s war job was by no means permanently free of danger. In March 1916, he was posted to the front line at Verdun, transporting petrol and other munitions. ‘Day and night without lights on unbelievable roads with a load double what my truck should carry,’ he wrote. ‘And even so I had to hurry because all this was within range of
the guns.’

Already a celebrated 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,’ Stravinsky commented. Ravel was, though, a ‘little man of steel’, as one observer put it, and proudly patriotic. And as he contemplated joining the military in those early days of August 1914, he was clear-eyed about what might happen, at one point even referring to his new Piano Trio as ‘a posthumous work’ – meaning he could easily be dead and buried by 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 28 January 1915, attracting limited attention under wartime conditions. Ravel himself did not emerge entirely unscathed from the conflict – various ailments led to a conditional discharge from the army in 1917, by which time he was ‘depressed, thin and suffering from neurasthenia’.

He recovered sufficiently to complete the piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin that same year. Although its six movements are dedicated to friends he lost in the war, the tone of the work as a whole is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. ‘The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence’, was Ravel’s explanation.

We named Ravel one of the best French composers ever and one of the top 10 greatest composers of all time


Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.