Ravel's family heritage can be traced to the Collogessous-Saleve, a village in France's Haute-Savoie, home to Ravel's grandfather Aime Ravel. Aime moved his family to Versoix, outside of Geneva, and became a Swiss citizen. Ravel's father, Pierre Joseph Ravel, was born there in 1832, one of five children. He pursued a career as an engineer, and would eventually play a role in France's developing automobile industry. He also maintained an interest in music.
Ravel's mother, Marie Delouart, was of Basque descent. She spoke French well, but never learned to write it. Ravel was her first child, born when she was thirty-five. Her second and final child was Edouard, and it was no secret in the Ravel home that Maurice was his mother's favorite. She is said to have sung Spanish folk melodies to him in his cradle, and mother and child were very close all their life together. Three years after her death, when Ravel was thirty-nine, he wrote to a friend, "My despair increases daily. I'm thinking about it even more, since I have resumed work, that I no longer have this dear silent presence enveloping me with her infinite tenderness, which was, I see it now more than ever, my only reason for living." At a time and place when school attendance was not mandatory, Ravel did not attend school until he entered the Paris Conservatory at age fourteen. In matters of literature, history, science, etc., he was home-schooled. But his parents are said to have been sensitive, devoted and intelligent people, and Ravel grew up with a keen curiosity for a wide range of interests.
His fourteen years at the Conservatory have been described as "largely marked by one academic failure after another, but nonetheless a time of immense growth." As a pianist Ravel played a wide variety of 19th-century piano music, including works by Mendelssohn, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Borodin, and analyzed the standard works of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, notably the music of Mozart.
Ravel's lifelong friend the pianist Marguerite Long once asked and answered the question, "What place had Ravel for love? It seemed that there as none. One day I said to him: 'Maurice, you ought to marry. Nobody understands and loves children as you do. Get rid of your hermit life and have a real home.' Ravel replied: 'Love never rises above the licentious.'
This 'licentiousness' he was willing, within moderation, to allow to some street-walking Venus; what remained beyond that would have turned his life upside-down and he did not find the idea an encouraging one. One evening Ravel, as timid men sometimes do, asked a woman he had known for a long time to marry him. She burst out laughing and said to all and sundry: 'Ravel is crazy; he wants to marry me.' From that time he abandoned all idea of disrupting his solitude."
Ravel explained his reluctance to marry this way: "You see, an artist has to be very careful when he wants to marry someone, because an artist never realizes his capacity for making his companion miserable. He's obsessed by his creative work and by the problems it poses. He lives a bit like a daydreamer and it's no joke for the woman he lives with. One always has to think of that when one wants to get married." Hermit life is not entirely accurate. From age 46 until his death at 62, Ravel lived at his villa Le Belvédère Montfort l'Amaury, with ten cats to which he spoke "cat language."