Ravel was born in Ciboure, France near Biarritz, part of the French Basque region, bordering on Spain. His mother, Marie Delouart, was Basque while his father, Joseph Ravel, was a Swiss inventor and industrialist. A few of Joseph's inventions are quite important; among them are an early internal combustion engine and a notorious circus machine, "The Whirlwind of Death" (an automotive loop-the-loop that was quite a hit in the early 1900s). After the family moved to Paris, Ravel's younger brother Edouard was born. At seven years old, young Maurice began piano lessons and composed pieces beginning about five or six years later. His parents encouraged his musical pursuits and sent him to the Conservatoire de Paris, first as a preparatory student and eventually as a piano major. During his schooling in Paris, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists who referred to themselves as the "Apaches" ("hooligans") because of their wild abandon. The group was well known for its drunken revelry.
He studied music at the Conservatoire under Gabriel Fauré for a remarkable fourteen years. During his years at the conservatory, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail. After a scandal involving his loss of the prize in 1905 (to Victor Gallois), even though he was considered the favourite to win that year, Ravel left the conservatory. The incident—named the Ravel Affair by the Parisian press—also led to the resignation of the Conservatoire's director, Théodore Dubois.
While many critics claim Ravel was influenced by composer Claude Debussy, Ravel himself claimed he was much more influenced by Mozart and Couperin, whose compositions are much more structured and classical in form. Ravel and Debussy were, however, clearly the defining composers of the impressionist movement. Ravel was also highly influenced by music from around the world including American Jazz, Asian music, and traditional folk songs from across Europe. Ravel had left the Roman Catholic Church and was a self-declared atheist, although he was also a spiritualist like many skeptics of his generation. He disliked the overtly religious themes of other composers, and instead preferred to look to classical mythology for inspiration. In 1907, after the premiere of Histoires Naturelles a controversy erupted. Pierre Lalo criticised the work as plagiarism of Debussy; however criticism was quickly silenced after the Rhapsodie espagnole was received with such high critical acclaim.