A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Impression, maison

Ravel and Le Belvédère Part 2

25 February 2011 

(Read Part 1)

There in front of us was the curious house in which Maurice Ravel spent the last 17 years of his life.  Described as a Camembert by a friend of Ravel’s, it is a sort of wedge with a poniard-roofed gothic tower set on a sharp curve on a steep hill.  It would be difficult to find a house with a more distinctive silhouette than that, I thought.


Maison-musée de Maurice Ravel in Montfort-l’Amaury


Perhaps Ravel’s remarkable tastes were inherited.  His father was a Swiss inventor who was famous for designing a circus machine, Le tourbillon de la mort (“The Whirlwind of Death”:  a car somersault).  Then again, his mother was Basque and spoke a language, Euskara, that linguists cannot agree as to where it came from due to its being pre-Indo-European.  She also spoke Spanish, having grown up in Madrid, and of course French.  These parents Maurice loved, and never left them, living with his widowed mother until her death when he was in his forties.  He then stayed with friends or in hotels for several years until he bought this house — Le Belvédère — in Monfort-l’Amaury in 1921.

Actually, he was away from his mother briefly when he joined the military during WWI, hoping to become a pilot because he was small and weighed so little.  Unfortunately because of his frail health, he was not allowed to fly.  However, he was assigned to drive a truck; this he affectionately called “Adelaide.”

Before WWI, Ravel had already composed many of his better-known works:  Daphnis et Chloé, Rhapsodie espagnole, L’heure espagnole, Ma mère l’oye, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Sonatine, Miroirs, and right at the beginning of the war, his Trio, of which he wrote, “My trio is finished.  I only need the themes for it,” — only another composer, who understands how music is constructed, can truly understand what he was talking about.  Throughout the war, from 1914 to 1917, he tinkered with Le tombeau de Couperin.

However, a few well-known works of Ravel date from his residence in Montfort-l’Amaury, the most famous being Boléro (which Ravel liked to describe as "seventeen minutes of orchestra without any music") and his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Tableaux d’une Exposition — “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  The instrumentation of the latter is so amazingly skillful that it is easy to understand why Stravinsky called Ravel l’horloger suisse — the Swiss watchmaker.  I find the intricacy of sound profound each time I hear the work.

In 1928 he went on a piano tour of America — he conducted his own music in San Francisco.  But in 1932 he bumped his head in a taxi accident.  Soon he had symptoms of aphasia and could no longer compose.  In 1937 he had brain surgery, but died shortly thereafter.



Back to Le Belvédère.  A sign on the side of the house translates as, “The town of Montfort-l’Amaury, in homage to Maurice Ravel, who lived in this house from 1921 to 1937.”

We rang the bell and Claude, a kind woman of gentle spirit, greeted us at the door.  She asked if we were participants in Les journées Ravel  (Ravel Days).

I had read online about this annual event, noting that the museum would be open with limited hours. I answered, “Non.  Nous voudrions voir le musée, s’il vous plaît.”

She then said that today it would be a problème due to the Ravel Days, but — in the first of many magnanimous gestures during our visit — if we didn’t mind a truncated tour, she was willing to begin right away.  The conference participants were to arrive soon.

Claude ushered us into the dining room, where she explained that, thanks to Maurice Ravel’s brother Édouard having lodged Marcel Proust’s servant girl in this house after Ravel’s death (Proust had died 15 years earlier than Ravel), everything remains as Ravel left it, as she was intent on preserving the composer's memory.  In the dining room, near the ceiling, we could see the borders that Ravel himself had painted.  There were some paintings on the walls, one of Maurice and his brother (the two garçons appeared to be around the ages of seven or eight), and another, a landscape, given to Ravel by his uncle, a painter.

In the library we saw Ravel’s tiny books (very small editions were common in those days), a phonograph that still works, and curios — including a funny toy man who sticks out his tongue, arms, and legs all at once.  As Claude operated it for our amusement, she commented (unnecessarily in this case), “C’est très drôle!”

The library has doors that open onto a balcony.  From the balcony we could see the garden that Ravel designed, drawing on Japanese elements, as well as the hills around Ravel’s estate, and the village below.  The church steeple — our first solid clue as to the location of the village — was now prominent.


Ravel's garden, as seen from the balcony


Ravel, like Debussy, had a fascination with all things Asian.  Stravinsky fittingly dedicated his Three Japanese Lyrics to Ravel.  While Ravel’s garden was modeled after that of the Japanese, in his house he had created a “Chinese room.”  In this room we saw vases and other objects from China that he had collected.

In the salon were more paintings and curios, along with what was then très moderne furniture.  The wallpaper is boldly striped and the floor checkered black and white:  not exactly conducive to repose as one might normally expect, but perhaps, given Ravel’s renowned energy, he didn’t often need to relax.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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