Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

String Quartet in F Major (1903)

Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in A minor (1914)


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

String Quartet in F Major (1903)

Ravel’s only String Quartet, often considered his first masterpiece, was composed when he was 28 years old and completing his studies at the Paris Conservatory. He was enrolled at the Conservatory at the age of fourteen and despite his many years of study there and obvious musical gifts, he was never awarded the coveted Grand Prix de Rome. He tried for it four times and never got more than second prize. In his final attempt in 1905, he never got past the preliminary competition. It might be said that his failure to be considered in 1905 did more to help launch his career than had he won the prize. Most of those winners of this most coveted prize have long been forgotten, both the men and their music. Denying a composer of Ravel’s gift this prize was seen to be scandalous. The music critics, who had hereto been cool toward him, rallied to his cause, and in the ensuing uproar, the head of the Conservatory was forced to resign, and was replaced by Gabriel Faure, who had been a teacher of Ravel’s.

The Quartet was premiered a year before this by the Heyman Quartet on March 5, 1904 at a concert of the Societe National in Paris. Although the work was enthusiastically received, it did not win unanimous approval. Gabriel Faure, to whom the work was dedicated, described the last movement as "stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure." (Talk about gracious). Other critics urged major revisions in the piece. However, no less a composer than Claude Debussy wrote to Ravel, "In the name of the Gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet."

Two years later, a critic in the New York Tribune wrote, "In his String Quartet M. Ravel is content with one theme which has the emotional potency of one of those tunes which the curious may hear in a Chinese theater, shrieked out by an ear-splitting clarinet. This theme serves him for four movements during which there is about as much emotional nuance as warms a problem in algebra. It is a drastic dose of wormwood and assafoetida." (Wormwood is a very bitter tasting herb used in making absinthe; assafoetida, a foul smelling and tasting gum resin used as an antispasmodic, as well as a repellent against dogs, cats and rabbits).

Our current take on this work is that it remains one of the most popular and often played string quartets in the literature. In it can be found those well wrought, yet sensual melodies, amazing range of tone color, vibrant rhythm and touch of the exotic that characterizes Ravel’s music.

The first movement is in Sonata form with two contrasting themes. It is full of lovely melody.

The second movement features rhythmic complexity and pizzicato. The 1st violin and the cello play in 3/4 time broken down into 3 groups of two eighth notes (2+2+2), while the 2nd violin and viola play in 6/8 time (3+3), so that each measure contains six eighth notes but because of their groupings, they are stressed differently. There is a contrasting slow middle section and a shortened reprise of the opening section.

The slow third movement also uses melodic material from the first movement and displays Ravel’s gift for achieving a remarkably wide range of tone colors from the four stringed instrument. Ravel’s muse always thrived on limitation, the more circumscribed, the more it flowered.

The finale contains another interesting rhythm. This time, 5/8 and, indeed, in this movement the opening theme of the first also plays a significant part.

We can be grateful that Ravel followed Debussy’s advice, rather than Faure’s. Although Ravel was very finicky and self-critical regarding his works, admittedly seeking technical mastery and perfection above all else, he regarded this early work warmly, and expressed the thought late in his life that perhaps he had sacrificed what was best in this early work, its boldness and spontaneity for the technical brilliance of his later work. Was this mere rumination on his part?

1993-94 Season, Program IV, Sunday March 20, 1994

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"To hear a whole program of Ravel’s works is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things with a limited scope. Moreover, the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated, of most of M. Ravel’s music is almost repulsive when heard in bulk; even its beauties are like the markings on snakes and lizards."

(London Times, April 28, 1924), from The Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicholas Slonimsky

University of Washington Press, Seattle 1969,1990

"For Ravel has been vouchsafed a high grace. He has been permitted to remain, in all his manhood, the child that once we all were. In him the powerful and spontaneous flow of emotion from out of the depths of being has never been dammed. He can still speak from the fullness of his heart, cry his sorrows piercingly, produce himself completely. Gracious and urbane as his music is, proper to the world of modern things and modern adventures and modern people, there is still a gray, piercing lyrical note in it that is almost primitive, and reflects the childlike singleness and intensity of the animating spirit."

Paul Rosenfeld, Musical Portraits

Harcourt, Brace and Howe. New York. 1920

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in A minor (1914)

With Ravel, born of Swiss and Basque parentage, we have the real thing: Busoni’s ideal of the Latin attitude toward art; "its cool serenity and insistence on outer form."

Tristan Klingsor, whose poems Ravel set to music in Shéhérazade (1903) (and who deserved a smack up alongside the head for adopting that name) wrote, "He was classical in his desire for order in all things, in the placing of his periods, in the melodic design, in harmony, in instrumentation. When he innovated – and certainly as a harmonist he did this frequently – it was in drawing unexpected but logical consequences from older principles." David Ewen. (Ewen’s Musical Masterworks 1954.) This "cool serenity" was bought at great price. He produced a relatively small body of finely wrought works - Stravinsky referred to him as a "Swiss watchmaker"- and Ravel consigned much that he did not feel up to his standards to the fireplace.

The Piano Trio (1914) seems to have been a particularly troublesome work to him: though external circumstances could be partially to blame for this. As can be seen from the date of composition, the First World War had broken out. Ravel was anxious to serve his country. He had hoped to become a pilot, however, his physical condition was an obstacle to this. Ravel was physically a very small man (an attribute he shared with other twentieth century musical giants – Stravinsky, Schönberg, Mahler and Bartok), and besides being small and underweight the doctors said that he had an "enlarged heart". From his letters of the time we find that he was worried that he would be given a desk job shuffling papers. Nevertheless, he did serve as an ambulance driver. In the course of his service he was wounded and later discharged. The Piano Trio was the last composition he completed before his enlistment. About its composition he wrote to his friend Misia Godebski, "Before going to Bayonne I spent a month working from morning to night without even taking time off for a bathe in the sea. I finished my Trio, treating it as a posthumous work. That doesn’t mean I lavished genius on it, but that the manuscript and the notes relating to it are so tidy that no matter who corrected the proofs…." (Hans Gal The Musicians World .) To Igor Stravinsky who reminisced, "he was dry and reserved and sometimes little darts were hidden in his remarks, but he was always a good friend to me. He drove a truck or ambulance in the war, as you know, and I admired him for it because at his age and with his name he could have had an easier place – or done nothing. He looked rather pathetic in his uniform; so small, he was two or three inches smaller than I am." (Igor Stravinsky & Robert Kraft Conversations With Stravinsky). He wrote; "The thought that I would go away forced me to do five month’s work in five weeks. I have finished my Trio".

In his Piano Trio, Ravel draws on heterogeneous elements; from Basque folk music, Malayan verse forms, to Baroque dance forms transforming these diverse elements into his own colorful and bitter-sweet sound world. The lovely first movement, a masterpiece of musical economy, Modéré is written in a compound meter of 3+2+3 derived from a Basque folk dance. Ravel has the violin and cello play their lines in widely spaced octaves, bracketing the piano, achieving a unique texture and sonority.

The second scherzo-like movement, Pantoum is based on a Maylay verse form Pantun, utilized by such French Poets as Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire. "The word has been adopted by English and French poets and denotes a special kind of verse, a group of quatrains where each stanza repeats as its first and third line the second and fourth line of the preceding stanza. Ravel follows a similar scheme with the separate phrases of his music." (Article by Eric Blom in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Fifth Edition. St Martin’s Press. 1954.) The third movement Passacaille: Très large, is felt by some to be the highlight of the Trio. Here Ravel uses the Passacaglia, a slow Baroque dance, usually in triple meter where the melody, usually first heard in the bass, (in this instance given to the piano then passed on to the cello) undergoes continuous variation. It is in this movement that the work builds to its emotional climax. Ravel’s next work Le Tombeau de Couperin, written on his return from the war and dedicated to friends killed in battle, would be a further exploration of Baroque dance forms.

The last movement, Finale: Animé opens with those marvelous "squeaky wheel" sounds used to good effect by the composer in his Mallarme songs, followed by a variant of the first movement theme capped by Ravelian fanfares.

The work was dedicated to Ravel’s former counterpoint teacher André Gédalge. It received its first performance in Paris on January 28, 1915. The Italian composer Alfredo Casella played the piano part, with Gabriel Willaume on violin, and Louis Feuillard, cello.

 1999 - 2000 Season, Program I, Sunday October 17, 1999

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All original text on this page copyright 2000  by Joseph Way