A “Baroque/Classical” thread weaves through the piano music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Just as Debussy’s piano music had bowed in the direction of the French clavecinistes in the Suite bergamasque (1890) and Suite: pour le piano (1901), so Ravel composed the Menuet antique (1895), Pavane for a Dead Princess (1899), Sonatine (1903-5), and Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17). All of these used more or less strict forms from the 18th century, and all contained classical restraint of expression.
The Sonatine became a project “by default.” In 1903, the Weekly Critical Review, an Anglo-French magazine sponsored an international composition competition. For a prize of 100 Francs, composers were to submit the first movement of a piano sonatine. Ravel entered. Unfortunately, the magazine shortly went bankrupt. Ravel’s piece, an exercise in adapting his style to sonata form, then took on a life of its own, and over the next two years, he continued to dabble with it, eventually completing all three movements in 1905.
The first movement of the Sonatine is so clearly in sonata form that it could appear in a textbook. The principal, secondary, and closing themes are extremely distinctive in melody and texture. After the repeated exposition of these, a carefully controlled development takes us through contrasting keys in an emotional crescendo that has to cool a little before the recapitulation of themes — now less restrained than at first and rounded out at the end with a charming, refined coda.
The second movement, a graceful minuet, begins like a typical French harpsichord piece: with a repeated couplet. A new theme digresses, but soon we hear a reprise of something like the couplet. Another digressive theme leads us back to a general reprise of the movement’s main ideas.
Capping the Sonatine is a toccata-like movement that begins with flashy passagework, fast-moving broken chords, and a fanfare motive. Then, Ravel the modernist steps forward with a section in alternating meters. The unusual 5/4 meter predominates. Then, for classical balance, the composer introduces the movement’s first real melody. Bringing back a variant of the first section, Ravel now occupies the remainder of the movement working out and combining elements from the first (flashy) and second (melodic, mixed-metered) sections. The accelerated coda fuses these together in a frenzied series of repetitions that conclude the Sonatine.
Étude en forme de habanera
There is a joke in the musical world that goes, “The best Spanish music was written by French composers.” Although there is more than a grain of truth there, it is only half proven in the case of Maurice Ravel. Ravel was born in the Pyrenees town of Delouart, and his mother was Basque. Ravel’s lifelong attraction to and mastery of the Spanish idiom is undeniable. Everyone knows Bolero, but Ravel composed at least seven other works in direct reference to Spanish music and culture.
In 1907, Ravel completed and premiere the first of these: the orchestral masterpiece Rhapsodie espagnole, a four-movement work that exposed Ravel’s colorful genius. “Habanera” was the moody third movement. Its soon became so popular (separate from the Rhapsodie) that the composer made an independent piece out of it under the name Vocalise Étude en forme de habanera. However, its melody was so lovely and the piano accompaniment so colorful that arrangements for other solo instruments were soon produced and published.
Several concert violinists incorporated the Étude into their programs or used it as an encore. Players of other string instruments — notably the cello — soon followed suit. Interestingly, in one of Ravel’s preliminary versions of the piece, he wrote a subtitle: “In the fragrant land caressed by the sun.”
Deux mélodies hébraiques
Maurice Ravel had a lifelong interest and love of folk culture, and this included European Jewish culture, especially its music. The unusual scales, the energetic dance rhythms, and the vocal embellishments especially fascinated him. The composer very personally expressed this fascination in the pair of songs titled Deux mélodies hébraiques (Two Jewish Songs) completed in 1914. Originally for solo voice and piano, this well-loved pair of religious-text settings was soon adapted several times as instrumental solos (with piano). Versions for wind instruments and for strings abounded. The viola or cello were very appropriate, since their ranges mirrored male vocal ranges, as chanted or sung by Jewish cantors.
The first movement, “Kaddish,” is in two sections. Each is distinguished by the style of its piano part. The first part presents the piano chiming long notes or chords that seem to hang in the air. In the second, the piano plays in lower ranges: mostly broken chords woven around the solo line. In both, the soloist plays rambling, improvisatory-style melodies full of tragic pathos.
The second, titled “The Eternal Enigma,” begins with a more cohesive, folk-song style by the soloist on top of repeated patterns of mostly dark, dissonant chords. The middle section becomes more familiarly harmonic in the piano, supporting the lyrical soloist, who now performs in a higher range. A stylistic reprise of the first section brings the song to a close. Through these two songs, Ravel clearly expressed his love for Jewish tradition and music.
Violin Sonata No. 2
During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel developed a love for American Jazz that became legendary. His admiration for George Gershwin, for example, was such that when the two met, it was as much an honor for Ravel as for Gershwin, who admired Ravel and would have liked to study with him. Ravel heard jazz first hand. In 1921, an Afro-American band played in Paris, delighting everyone. They must have played the blues, which impressed Ravel deeply. For later, when he toured the United States, he declared, “To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain.”
From 1923 until 1927, Ravel worked at composing his Violin Sonata, and it became his first work to employ jazz influence: the second movement even bears the title “Blues.” The first movement, however, exposes us to another trend in the sonata: paradoxical contrast. The piano and violin at the opening are clearly in different keys. Respite from the tension of such passages comes in the classical cantilena theme laid out for us by the violin. Although both instruments develop this and the more tripping opening idea, they often sound like they are in different tonal orbits — this is the paradox Ravel achieves.
Banjo-like, the violin strums its chords at the opening of the “Blues” movement. With the piano picking up the chords, the violin is now free to “sing” the blues, for the most part using just one finger to get the proper idiomatic sliding effects. A steady beat and appropriate “blue notes” complete the composer’s commentary.
Ravel later reflected that he composed his sonata for two “essentially incompatible instruments, which not only do not sink their differences, but accentuate the incompatibility to an even greater degree.” In the perpetual motion of the third movement the composer emphasizes this contrast. He does not overlook jazz, however. Attentive listeners will hear in the piano, and later repeatedly in the violin, a blues “lick” (motive) also used prominently in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The Violin Sonata’s purposeful contrast between the sound of the two instruments, its bitonality, and its jazz idiom constitute new ground that Ravel had broken in his development. These also account for a paradox that commentator Gérald Messadiè terms “the piece’s sarcastic exuberance in spite of its sentimental, tender resonance. . . .”
Maurice Ravel was never a prolific composer, and his output for chamber media was correspondingly sparse. After completing his String Quartet in 1903 as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel wrote little chamber music of significance until embarking on his Piano Trio in 1914. Early that year the composer retired to the countryside to work uninterrupted, but he soon developed problems. One was his preoccupation with a proposed piano concerto on Basque themes, which never materialized. Then, during the early summer, he seems to have experienced a form of “writer’s block,” and he became disgusted with his work on the Trio. Finally, when France entered World War I in August, Ravel became determined to finish the work quickly, so that he could volunteer for military service. He worked feverishly at the Trio during August and wrote to a friend, “I am working — yes, working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman. At the same time, I get terrible fits of depression and suddenly find myself sobbing over the sharps and flats!” By the end of the month, Ravel had finished what many consider to be one of the most significant chamber works of the 20th century.
In the first movement, cast roughly in sonata form, the most striking feature is the rhythm. The meter marking is 8/8, and the resulting asymmetrical rhythmic design of each measure is usually some variant of 3 + 2 + 3 eighth notes. This is the Bulgarian rhythm that Bartók used frequently, but it is also the rhythm of certain Basque dances which Ravel was pondering at the time he wrote the Trio.
Rhythm and meter are also critical factors in the second movement, “Pantoum.” A “pantoum” (or “phantoum”) is a poetic form, probably of Malayan origin, used by Baudelaire and other French poets. It consists of bringing back two lines of one quatrain in the following one, which gives the impression of two distinct ideas juxtaposed. Ravel carries out this principle in both the structure and the rhythm of this high-spirited movement. The alternations and combinations of mosaic themes of the movement are crowned in the middle by an extended passage in polymeter. Here, the strings continue in the original meter of 3/4, while the piano accompanies with rich chords in 2/2 time.
The third movement is a formally strict 20th-century adaptation of the Baroque French Passacaille, a contrapuntal variation form. The nature of this movement hints at why Ravel dedicated his Trio to André Gédalge, the famous contrapuntist and Ravel’s former teacher.
In the Trio’s brilliant finale, written in a free rondo form, asymmetrical rhythm again comes into play. Passages in 5/4 time alternate with 7/4 segments. Ravel also becomes more orchestral and virtuosic in this movement, with its shimmering cello tremolos and quick violin arpeggios. Rich, thick chords in the piano work rhythmically both with and against the strings to give the impression of “floating” meter, a feature that strongly unifies the entire Trio.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2021. All rights reserved.