How Does Ravel’s Music Differ From Debussy’s?

How Does Ravel's Music Differ From Debussy's
How Does Ravel’s Music Differ From Debussy’s

If the names above are not familiar to you, then you are in for a treat. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy composed some of the most inspired music the world has ever heard from scintillating solo piano works to highly evocative orchestral pieces. Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France in 1862; Ravel in Ciboure, France in 1875.

Both composers were directly associated with a movement that emerged in the French art world called ‘Impressionism’, although it is important to recognize that Debussy especially detested this label. Debussy is thought to have referred to the use of the term ‘impressionism’ to describe his music as ‘imbecilic’. This in part can be explained by the realization that the term was used by certain critics of the time in a somewhat negative manner, implying that the works of art were incomplete impressions, not finished pieces.

What is crucial to realize is that Debussy and Ravel were key creative figures in the movement that came to be known as Modernism. Whilst the Germanic nations were developing a rigorously systematic, controlled approach to composition that gave rise to ‘Serialism’ and atonality, the French were developing the harmonic language and structures without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. By this I mean they continued to build on existing structures rather than try to start from scratch, often modeling their pieces on Baroque forms. The French harmony became enlivened and enriched with influence from Asia and the world of Jazz. Ravel and Debussy absorbed these influences seamlessly into their work to create a new evolutionary step in music that allowed them to compose music that had never been heard before.

What they do have in common is that they were both formidable pianists, lived in Paris, and studied at the Paris conservatoire. The pianistic link is important as much of the repertoire each composer wrote is for this instrument and made a huge contribution to redefining how the piano can be used as a solo instrument. Debussy’s virtuosity at the pianos was not equaled by Ravel’s smaller stature and hands prevented him from achieving the pianistic prowess that Debussy held. Living in Paris was also a significant factor as the city was the cultural heart of France providing both composers access to great artistic diversity. An example of this cultural influence was the ‘World Exhibition’ of 1889 which opened the eyes of numerous people to the sounds of the East. This was to have a profound influence on the music of both composers.

Out of this colorful melting pot came the ‘Symbolist’ movement in poetry. Three such poets who inspired works from Ravel and Debussy were Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). These creatives were by no means the only source of inspiration for Debussy and Ravel, but highly significant. It is the work of Mallarmé for example, that resulted in Debussy’s stunning orchestral work, ‘L’apres-midi d’un faune’. A phrase to consider particularly when considering the music of Debussy and the influence of the symbolist movement is that these poets “preferred poetry of allusion and suggestion rather than statement”.

Ravel is often defined by his meticulous approach to his compositions. For him, the devil is definitely in the detail, and this may have contributed to the smaller number of completed works by Ravel. He held Mozart in extremely high regard aiming for his own compositions to have the clarity and structural perfection that he heard in the works of Mozart. Debussy was, in my opinion, equally precise in his compositions but with a different outcome intended. For Debussy, there was not the desire to pay homage to Mozart but to express himself freely and uninhibitedly.

There is often speculation about the influence Debussy had on the younger Ravel. This is often within the framework of rivalry and even artistic jealousy. The two composers met somewhere around 1900 with Debussy’s stepson Raoul Bardac providing the introductions. Keep in mind that at this time, Debussy was a firmly established and celebrated composer with the enviable ‘Prix de Rome’ already on his mantlepiece. There is little doubt that Debussy made a profound impression on Ravel who was reportedly reduced to tears on hearing ‘L’apres-midi d’un faune’ for the first time, saying that then “he understood what music is”.

Debussy’s relationship with Ravel was born out of Ravel’s tremendous support and enthusiasm for the older composer’s work. He did everything in his power to support the initially disastrous ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’ opera of Debussy, which was greeted with disdain and indifference by the musicians. In turn, Debussy encouraged and supported Ravel, attending his premiers and promoting the composer’s work. If you listen to Ravel’s String Quartet of 1903, the Debussy’s String Quartet, I believe the influence of Debussy is quite audible here in Ravel’s work and serves as a testament to their relationship. The unfortunate side of this is that Ravel was then accused by some of being nothing more than an imitator of Debussy’s work in a similar way to Brahms was to Beethoven.

To his credit, Ravel did not take a defensive stance and openly admitted ‘borrowing’ from other notable composers such as Chopin and Saint-Saëns. Ravel’s approach is an honest one that reflects how all composers frequently begin their careers. This admission and admiration Ravel had for Debussy did not prevent the critics of the day from casting assertions designed to create a rift between the two eminent composers. Pierre Lalo, a music critic for ‘Le Temps’, took every opportunity to bring Ravel’s music into disrepute.

Following the publication of Debussy’s ‘Estampes’ in 1903 and the first set of ‘Images’ in 1905, attention turned to Ravel’s influence on Debussy.

In this unexpected turn of events, there is clear evidence that suggests Debussy made use of the ‘new’ piano techniques Ravel had first devised in his piano work ‘Jeux d’eau’. Listen to these works and you’ll quickly pick up on the similarities. Animosity followed and the composers were never entirely reconciled.

Both Ravel and Debussy were innovators. Debussy’s harmonic language pushed the confines of an already stretched tonal system further, whilst Ravel re-defined the piano as an instrument. Each of the composers wrote music that was delicately detailed and highly evocative; expertly orchestrated and uniquely formed. Ravel absorbed his Basque heritage into his work alongside jazz and music from the East. Debussy’s work reflected this too but in a subtler manner. Similar they may be, but the same they are not.

1 thought on “How Does Ravel’s Music Differ From Debussy’s?”

  1. I am an art historian and am used to a lot of pointless “compare and contrast” talks, but here you make a beautiful and enlightening case for each composer’s inclinations and the
    artists they gravitated toward. I’ve come away with greater appreciation for each.

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