At the end of January, we brought you an article about the visit of one New Yorker, Katelyn Simone, to the Basque Country and her article about her culinary experiences in our country.
As we always do, we linked back to her on social media so she would know we’d mentioned her article and she quite kindly wrote back to thank us for that. That started off a dialog that has culminated in this article which she wrote for the blog, which marks the start of a series of entries that we truly, deeply hope will become a signature part of the blog, our correspondent in New York.
To get the ball rolling, she gifted us this article that fits in with this week’s theme like a hand in a globe. As we mentioned, March 7 was the anniversary of the birth of that most universal of Basque musicians, Maurice Ravel. So, for her first entry, Katelyn Simone is sharing with us her visit to Ciboure, in Labourd, to visit the home where this composer was born.
Because our snazzy correspondent in New York, in addition to being a journalist specializing in art, culture, and travel, is a professional oboist, and Ravel is one of her favorite composers.
We must thank her for this love of hers of Ravel, as it has meant that our paths, that of the blog and hers, should cross, and lead us to the beginning of a collaboration that we are sure is going to help us discover many interesting things.
So, all that’s left is to thank her and to welcome her to her new home!
Tracing a Musical Source in Basque Country: the Birthplace of Maurice Ravel
Katelyn Simone. New York Correspondent
I first heard of Basque Country through the history of 20th century composer Maurice Ravel. I’m a professional oboist, and in music school you learn the brief anecdote that the consummate artist was born in a tiny independent region in Spain (actually, France); that his mother was Basque; and that despite never really being there (also not accurate, as he visited quite often), he was fiercely proud of this heritage, which is culturally distinct from the nations surrounding it.
While there’s so much more to the story–both the composer’s, and the Basque region’s–from this point Ravel belongs to France. He studied in Paris at the renowned Conservatory and was a fixture in the city’s artistic life in the 1920s. Then and now, the French eagerly claimed him among the most quintessential representatives of their musical tradition. (About Basque Country has written about Ravel’s heritage and the question of national “ownership.”) Beyond these identities, Ravel gained international recognition in his lifetime, and the worldwide influence of his music is difficult to overstate.
On a personal level, Ravel is among my favorite composers, my answer to the question, “What historical figure would you take to lunch?” (if Stravinsky would join us, so much the better). And so, on a recent trip to Paris–principally to see The Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, a temporary and posthumous artwork by Christo and Jeanne-Claude–I schemed to swing southward to Basque Country for a musical pilgrimage and to investigate the source of this global and personal treasure.
The Basque region straddles a small area of both northern Spain and southern France, between the rocky coast of the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees mountains. From Paris, my partner and I took a train southwest to resort town Biarritz, a jewel of a place even in rainy October. After a day of seafood (Basque cuisine was also a focus of this trip–read about my culinary experiences here) and meanders on misty beaches, we rode a bus to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, almost the last town before the border between the Northern and Southern Basque Country.
With white houses trimmed by terra-cotta-colored shutters (Basque Red) and a flock of boats dotting the bay, Saint-Jean-de-Luz seems to have dropped straight out of the 17th century. The same goes for Ciboure—in Basque, Ziburu—its smaller neighbor across the Nivelle River (population: 6,463), and our destination. The quaintness factor increased with every step as we strolled the ten minutes to Ciboure and turned onto quai Maurice-Ravel.
It’s a quiet street. Ravel spent the first three years of his life here and I imagine it looked much to him then as it did to me now. The house sits towards the end, facing the sunny bay waters. Called San Estabania after its builder, the elegant stone structure stands taller than the rest in the row and is the only one constructed in thoroughly Dutch style. In 1660, Cardinal Mazarin stayed there while attending the wedding of Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Theresa in St. Jean de Luz.
No pomp, no circumstance; there was no one around but the occasional car. A small plaque announced the facts:
“Dans cette maison est né Maurice Ravel
Le 7 Mars 1875.”
There was a small exhibit just inside the door: dusty, perhaps, from the covid era. (I now know that Ravel was christened just behind the house in the little 16th-century church of Saint Vincent, where I was elated to find a public bathroom.)
I mulled about on this quasi-forgotten spot. A grave-looking man emerged from the house next door and regarded me critically. We exchanged bonjours. Likely he knew, and had gotten over, I thought, the ocean of sound that had started here.
A myriad of influences flowed both in and out of Ravel’s work, especially those he heard here in Ciboure. Traditional Basque dance and folk music features heavily in his music, such as the trio for piano, violin, and cello. A rarely-talked-about unfinished work called the “Zazpiak Bat,” or “the Seven are One,” after the Basque motto of unifying its seven provinces, returns meaningfully to this source. The Basque imprint is also traceable personally, as he spoke Euskara—the unique and challenging Basque language, unrelated to any other—and returned to Ciboure annually to celebrate the holidays.
Ravel had a flair for the exotic, and many other global influences found their way into his work as well: French of course, plus Italian, Moroccan, Hebrew, among others. His most famous work, Boléro, is based on a Spanish dance, while La Valse takes a mysterious spin on the Viennese tradition. The son of a Swiss engineer-and-inventor father, Ravel was obsessed with gadgets and miniatures (his house in France, Le Belvedere, was full of mechanical toys). He loved American film scores and jazz, which relished him in turn; his music counted such devotees as Bill Evans and Miles Davis.
You hear these threads converge in works like the magnificent Piano Concerto in G. It is meticulously crafted in the neo-classical style–think the charm and elegance of Mozart spiked with modern harmonies and orchestration. The first movement starts with a bang and an exquisite, clock-like march. Jazz inflections slide all around and the whirring motion gives way to bursts of color and splendor.
By contrast, the concerto’s famous second movement, the Adagio Assai, is a dreamlike walk through a lush wash of sound. Its melody, sung in turn by the piano solo and English horn, is earnest and hauntingly simple; you might even describe it as child-like.
This is what wafted to meet me as I stood there on the quiet street.
Video of quai Maurice Ravel
Art may resonate throughout the world, but is experienced on the personal level. I have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of my life practicing Ravel’s music, including the Concerto in G. I can conjure entire works of his in my mind, including the surreally beautiful daybreak scene from the ballet Daphnis and Chloe and Le Tombeau de Couperin (something of an oboist’s manifesto); as a woodwind player I know what it tastes like to play Ravel and to be surrounded in an orchestra by the sonorities he envisioned.
Gazing out on the scene of Ravel’s infancy, the familiar physical connection returned, moving something within me as his music had so many times before. I held it, along with the lapping waves, the sun, the boats, the breeze from the sea. I couldn’t wait to get back and play my oboe.
Note: For some fabulous Ravel listening, check out this 2021 recording by the Basque National Orchestra, as well as their well-curated disc of stellar but lesser-known American works—both mentioned here by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross.