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The missing millions of Maurice Ravel

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

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Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Maurice Ravel

Here's a question for you. If you had to name classical music's most recognisable piece, what would it be?

For many, the answer would be Maurice Ravel's Boléro, which is pretty appropriate, for it was first heard in 1928 on November 22, the feast day of Cecilia, music's patron saint.

"I only wrote one masterpiece," Ravel commented. "Unfortunately, it doesn't include any music."

The Frenchman hadn't had particularly high hopes for the piece, which he'd been signed up to write for a ballet with a Spanish theme.

Ravel had wanted to base the score on a piano suite by Isaac Albéniz, but discovered that the rights were held by a former pupil of his.

In a remark that would come to be recalled as one of the music world's greatest ironies, Ravel declared copyright law "stupid".

He set off in another direction, seeking out a theme that would not last 60 seconds, but that he'd repeat 18 times - without variation.

And so Boléro was born. In the ballet premiere, it accompanied a flamenco routine, performed by one of the top dancers of the day, Ida Rubinstein, who'd been behind the commission in the first place.

Normally, a composer would develop his theme. Not this time. Many loved its idiosyncrasy, but there were those who felt short-changed.

There were some cries of "Rubbish". One woman in the audience roared, "This is the work of a madman." Ravel responded: "She has understood."

There may have been something in the comment. Psychiatrists have suggested that by this stage of his career, the composer was showing signs of dementia, the beginning of what was described in a biography (Roger Nichols - Ravel - Yale University Press) as "a long fight against a mental fog that was descending".

The composer died following an unsuccessful brain operation just after Christmas in 1937, and this is where the irony of his comment about copyright law comes into focus.

Ravel, a tiny man who was just 5ft 1in, never married, and had no children. So the rights to his music passed to his younger brother Édouard.

As Boléro became more and more popular, so the royalties rolled in. And would do, normally, for 70 years following the composer's death.

Édouard, as the beneficiary, wanted to use the substantial funds that were building up to preserve his brother's legacy. He turned his house into a museum, then proposed that the city of Paris should take over the management of 80pc of the royalties with the intention of creating a kind of Nobel Prize for music.

But a serious car accident that brought carers into Édouard's family somehow changed the perspective.

When he died a widower in 1960, Édouard's nurse was the sole beneficiary of the Ravel fortune.

Normally, copyright ends 70 years after the death of the composer. French law, though, extends this period by eight years and 120 days for works published between 1921 and 1947, to compensate for losses as a result of World War II.

From 1960, until Boléro entered the public domain in 2016, it's reckoned the music generated €50m in royalties. Whoever ended up with the money had only the most tenuous connection with the composer of one of music's most famous pieces, Maurice Ravel, who was born on this day in 1875.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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