Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel is best known as a brilliant composer in two media: the orchestra and the piano (for one, two, four and even five hands). He was amazingly adept at transcribing music from one medium to the other yielding two versions of the same music, one with immense space and color, the other with a finely etched clarity and intimacy, both with the same essential musical character. It seems only natural that he would combine his fine sensibilities for color and texture in a small ensemble. Indeed, Ravel wrote a small number of equally phenomenal if lesser known chamber works: a string quartet, a piano trio, a violin sonata, a duo for violin and cello and the Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet. A slow and meticulous composer, Ravel maintained a consistency of style, craftsmanship and inspiration throughout all of his music while still producing a delicious variety. Key aspects of his style make his music uniquely accessible and enduring for a 20th century composer: a classical sense of form, a vocabulary of melody and harmony that is modern yet tonal, and a rhythmic motion full of vitality and subtlety.
Ravel wrote his only string quartet in 1903 at the age of twenty-eight. During this period, he was greatly enamored of Debussy’s music and it is clear that he was influenced by Debussy’s only string quartet published just ten years earlier. There are numerous similarities between the two quartets. Both feature modal scales and novel harmonies, a whole new range of string quartet textures and colors, a second-movement scherzo dominated by pizzicato, a slow third movement with an impressionistic cast, and a cyclic design where themes recur throughout the entire quartet. For each composer, the string quartet came early in his career and would eventually be regarded as his first masterpiece. The two quartets have been closely associated ever sense, much as Debussy and Ravel themselves are associated as the chief exponents of French Impressionism within an intimate context of place and time. Much as the Parisians of the time passionately chose sides in a lively debate about the two composers, listeners ever since have continued to delight in the comparison and contrast of these two exquisite quartets.
Both quartets begin their musical exploration with a fairly traditional sonata-form first movement that establishes the principle themes heard throughout the quartet. While both quartets are based on a cyclic design, they employ their recurring themes in different ways. Debussy uses a single theme that constantly transforms across all four movements. In this sense, he is primarily fascinated with continuous variation, an evolution of ever-changing sensations. Ravel employs multiple themes, the two main themes of the first movement and one from the second. The themes recur with less variation, their essential natures intact, functioning much like themes in a single sonata to give his quartet a strong sense of order as a large-scale process of integration and balance. In at least this way, the quartets differ. Ravel’s tendency for neo-classical craftsmanship contrasts with Debussy’s more impressionistic freedom.
The two inner movements of Ravel’s quartet are particularly rich and fascinating. The second movement is a lively scherzo in a triple meter with a contrasting trio section. The dominant use of pizzicato perfectly punctuates a delightful rhythmic complexity based on the syncopated cross-rhythms of playing 6/8 and 3/4 in alternating measures as well as simultaneously in different instruments. Further subdivisions of the beat overlay this Iberian dance rhythm with triplets (three to a beat) in the main theme and thirty-second notes (four to a beat) in the middle parts. Combing displaced accents, trills, the shivering rasp of rapid tremolo and swiftly changing dynamics, the scherzo dazzles with the precise choreography of its interlocking parts. The trio slows into languid repose with an elegant melody in the lower strings tinged with still more Spanish perfume. But unlike most trios, this one is essentially a reconfiguration of the scherzo, made of the same musical materials: one of the two scherzo themes can be heard in nearly every measure of the trio, transformed by the slow tempo, fragmented, and shifted into the background. Most trios finish with a definite closure; in a single clear gesture, they return to the beginning of scherzo thereby emphasizing a strongly sectional form. Ravel has his scherzo gently creep back in, overlapping with the trio to create a smooth continuity that is subtle and expertly crafted. Unique in the literature, it is characteristic of Ravel’s mature style.
The third movement is a beautiful nocturne, an exotic dream of longing that, once again, brings Debussy’s quartet to mind. Usually described as “rhapsodic” or “improvisatory”, its musical wanderings are more theatrically calculated than they might first appear. A gentle, sensuous melody grows slowly out of the lower strings, interrupted throughout its gestation by short, isolated recurrences of themes from both the first and second movements like fleeting, displaced memories of the day that ultimately succumb to the heaviness of nightfall. A dark, insistent cello portends the further depths of night and, twice, the soft upper strings stir the quiet with a barely perceptible breath of wind in what might be the five most remarkable measures of the entire quartet. Out of the stillness, the thwarted theme finally swells into a passionate, sustained cry, a fever of swirling night visions that eventually subsides, spent, back into the folds of recurrence, the final sounds of the first movement theme soothing with a tender embrace of unfathomable peace.
© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.