Ravel and Holland

Yacht Aimée

Ravel's first journey outside France took the form of a seven-week canal trip during June and July 1905, on board the yacht Aimée which belonged to Misia and Alfred Edwards. Their route took them through Belgium, Holland and Germany, and Ravel described his experiences in a series of letters to Maurice Delage (Chalupt, [1956] p.29-43).

Ravel joined the expedition at Soissons, and other guests already on board included the painters Pierre Laprade and Pierre Bonnard. For Ravel the holiday provided an immense relief from the furore which had broken out over his exclusion from the Prix de Rome, and also from an intensive period of work to complete the Introduction et allegro.

They travelled northwards through the Ardennes and into Belgium, stopping at Liége, then to Holland with a week in Amsterdam; then up the Rhine into Germany (Düsseldorf, Köln, Koblenz and Frankfurt); then back into Holland (Dordrecht, Veere, Middelburg and Vlissingen) and along the Belgian coast (Oostende); finally returning to France at Le Havre.


Ravel's first encounter with Holland was in 1905 as part of the holiday that he spent on the Yacht Aimée. Reaching Maastricht on 15 June, the expedition went on to Amsterdan around 21 June and the travellers remained there for over a week. In a letter to Maurice Delage, Ravel described his first impressions of the Dutch capital, quite different from what he had expected: "Un amas de maisons polychromes aux pignons ouvragés, les palais et les monuments modernes curieux de couleur et d'architecture. Partout, des canaux. La ville entière est bâtie sur pilotis, ce qui lui donne un caractère épatant, mais en fait un infect trouillot. Dès mon arrivée je me suis précipité au jardin zoologique et à l'aquarium. Je sens que j'y retournerais plusieurs fois."

And on a trip to Alkmaar he was especially struck by the mechanical quality of a landscape of windmills: "Hier, excursion à Arkmaar [sic]. Marché aux fromages, accompagné d'un sempiternel carillon. En route, un spectacle des plus magnifiques. Un lac bordé de moulins. Dans les champs, des moulins, jusqu'à l'horizon. De quelque côté qu'on regarde, on ne voit que des ailes qui tournent. On finit par se croire automate soi-même, à l'aspect de ce paysage mécanique." (Orenstein [1989] letter 18).

The return journey took him to Veere and Middelburg where, even after seven weeks of travelling, he still marvelled at "ces villes hollandaises, si curieuses" (Orenstein [1989] letter 21).


In September, Ravel went to Amsterdam to take part in a festival of contemporary French music. La Valse was played by the orchestra of the Concertgebouw conducted by Willem Mengelberg, about whom Ravel was complimentary in a contemporary interview, even if he thought that a little too much freedom was given to the brass section. (De Telegraaf, 30 sept. 1922). The public reception of this performance was so enthusiastic that Ravel was obliged to give an almost impromptu recital of some of his songs with Claire Croiza. (Marnat [1986] p.528).


In the autumn of 1923 Ravel made two visits to Holland. In the middle of October he conducted concerts in Amsterdam, The Hague and Haarlem. In mid-November he returned to conduct a concert in Rotterdam. (Nichols [2011] p.255).


Ravel travelled to Amsterdam for a chamber concert on 1 October. This consisted of works which had been commissioned by Mrs Elizabeth Coolidge, and Ravel played the piano part in his Chansons madécasses, with Madeleine Grey as the singer. (Orenstein [1989] letters 270 and 280, with note).


Ravel returned to Holland in spring 1932, towards the end of the European tour of his new Piano concerto in G with Marguerite Long in a series of performances in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Haarlem, Den Haag, and Arnhem. In Amsterdam, Willem Mengelberg had rehearsed the Concertgebouw orchestra with great care and when Ravel took over conducting he relished its quality, and enjoyed a considerable success. Ravel made one further visit to Holland in the autumn of 1933, to attend the first Dutch performance of L'Heure espagnole. (Long [1971] p.71).