From a letter to the editor by Graham Chainey in the 3 March 2023 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:
When Maurice Ravel began to compose his “Boléro” in 1928, he certainly did not intend to make his brother’s wife’s masseuse’s husband’s second wife’s daughter a multimillionaire. But that is what has happened, and Ravel’s copyrights in the US are secure until 2032.
The section of the Wikipedia article on Boléro regarding it being in the public domain needs good reliable and accurate citations added. It’s confusing. If I improve it, I’ll use what’s below.
I looked around, and there’s this from “History has skated over Ravel’s partner, say heirs,” an article in the Times (21 November 2018):
Until 2016, when it fell out of copyright, it generated tens of millions of euros in royalties for a small group of distant heirs of the childless French composer. Now they are taking legal action to reclaim its copyright for another 20 years, arguing that Ravel did not write it alone.
In most countries copyright lasts for 70 years after a creator’s death, although in France it is often nearer 80. Ravel died in 1937, with his heirs having collected up to €100 million before the work fell into the public domain. They have only the most tenuous relationship to Ravel, right, instead inheriting the fortune through ties to a masseuse who married Ravel’s brother, Edouard, sole inheritor of the composer’s estate.
Evelyne Pen de Castel, a Swiss theatre director who is the daughter of the second husband of the masseuse, is believed to be the main heir. She is also one of the driving forces behind the lawsuit against the Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers (Sacem), which determines copyright issues in France.
That makes the heir Ravel’s brother’s masseuse wife’s second husband’s daughter. Hmm.
This is from Paradise Papers: La saga des droits du Boléro de Ravel by Radio France:
Au décès de Maurice Ravel en 1937, le compositeur n’ayant pas de descendant, c’est son frère Edouard qui hérite de ses droits. Blessé dans un accident de la route, ce dernier aura recours à une gouvernante dont il va s’éprendre au point d’en faire son héritière. Une fois celle-ci décédée, son ex-mari avec lequel elle s’est remise en ménage, Alexandre Taverne, hérite à son tour des droits, avant de les transmettre à Georgette qu’il a épousée en seconde noces. Celle-ci a une fille d’un premier mariage : Evelyne Pen de Castel. C’est donc elle aujourd’hui l’ultime dépositaire de ces droits.
DuckDuckGo translates that to:
When Maurice Ravel died in 1937, the composer had no descendants, so his brother Edouard inherited his rights. Injured in a road accident, the latter will use a governess whom he will fall in love with to the point of making her his heir. Once she died, her ex-husband with whom she had restarted, Alexandre Taverne, in turn inherited the rights, before passing them on to Georgette, whom he had married for the second time. She had a daughter from a first marriage: Evelyne Pen de Castel. It is therefore today the ultimate depositary of these rights.
That makes the heir Ravel’s brother’s lover’s (?) ex-husband’s (second) wife’s daughter. Hmm.
Looking up the Alexandre Taverne name, I found “$4-Million Ravel Estate Passes to Nonrelative” in the New York Times (1 March 1968):
A Court of Appeal has ruled that royalties on the music of Maurice Ravel must be paid to a former barber who was no relative and apparently never met the composer. Barring a final appeal, the barber, Alexandre Taverne of Hendaye, will collect $4-million.
When Ravel died in 1937, his rights and his estate passed to his brother Edouard. The brother died in 1960, after naming Mrs. Taverne, who had been his governess-masseuse, as his heir….
Mrs. Taverne died during the five years of litigation and her estate—and the Ravels’—went to her husband.
“Governess-masseuse”?! Surely this job escaped from a French farce.
But the story continues in Poor Ravel by Jon Henley in the Guardian (25 April 2001)—and it’s worth noting the NYT story specifically says a court ruled the masseuse was not a nurse:
Unmarried and childless, the composer left everything to his brother Edouard…. All seemed in good hands until the day in 1954 when Edouard and his wife were involved in a horrendous car accident. In need of constant help, the couple engaged Jeanne Taverne, a 48-year-old nurse, and her husband Alexandre, a former miner and barber, who acted as their chauffeur. When Edouard’s wife died two years later, the Tavernes moved in, never to leave….
Jeanne Taverne became his sole inheritor….
So it was that, in 1970, when the last appeal judge ruled in Alexandre Taverne’s favour, Jeanne having died six years earlier, the former miner picked up £3.6m….
Taverne, who had since remarried, got his hands on all the Ravel contracts …
Then, in 1972, in a move that has never been fully explained, Alexandre and Georgette Taverne assigned a portion of their composer’s and publisher’s rights …
Georgette’s daughter told Le Point magazine last year …
So that makes (adding Ravel’s brother’s wife into the list for effect, since we can assume the masseuse worked on both of the injured couple) the heir Ravel’s brother’s wife’s masseuse’s husband’s second wife’s daughter. That’s where we began. Good!
But wait … what was that about the Paradise Papers? The daughter, Evelyne Pen de Castel and her husband, Michel Sogny, set up a company in Malta to manage musical rights, and some of its papers came out in that big leak.
Ravel composed “Boléro” in 1928 and he died in 1937. It’s now 2023. The work is still in copyright in the United States. Eighty-six years after Ravel’s death, his brother’s wife’s masseuse’s husband’s second wife’s daughter—and, I suspect, his brother’s wife’s masseuse’s husband’s second wife’s daughter’s husband—are so rich from their inherited copyright ownership that they set up offshore companies to manage their wealth.
And that was Graham Chainey’s point: copyright lasts ridiculously long, doesn’t benefit the creators, and can ultimately end up decades later feeding money to intellectual property corporations or people with no connection to the creators.
Sadly, late last year here in Canada, the government added twenty years and extended copyright to last for life plus seventy because of CUSMA:
Except as otherwise expressly provided by this Act, the term for which copyright subsists is the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, and a period of 70 years following the end of that calendar year.