Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
“I have written only one masterpiece. That is the Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music.” – Maurice Ravel
Between 1903 and 1914, Maurice Ravel produced three magnificent chamber music works that are among the finest in the repertoire of early modern music. With Debussy and Satie, Ravel defined a new revelatory style of French music that made a sharp break from the 19th century Romantic tradition overwhelmingly dominated by German angst. Drawing from such exotic inspirations as Asian culture, the French Symbolist poets, Spanish folk music and the Impressionist painters, entirely new sounds emerged in poetic piano miniatures and vast orchestral canvases of sumptuous color. In between lay a precious cache of chamber music works. Debussy wrote a stunning String Quartet and the otherworldly quintet for harp and strings, Danse sacrée et danse Profane. Ravel’s essential creations comprise an equally extraordinary string quartet, the Introduction et Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet and the Piano Trio. Both composers also wrote a small number of rarefied sonatas as late works. Curiously, while the piano and orchestral works create entirely new forms, organic, and fluid as the indistinct atmospheres they express, the chamber works tend to work their magic within more traditional formats. Ravel’s string quartet and piano trio are structured around a traditional plan with the immediately recognizable four-movement character. Of the piano trio, Ravel famously remarked, “My Trio is finished. I only need the themes for it”, suggesting that he had fastidiously mapped out the structure including its harmonic plan in an intentional quest to conquer the timehonored form within the equally traditional genre of the piano trio. What makes this trio such a masterpiece, besides its immediate sensual appeal, is the blending of both a skillfully crafted structure and the indescribably fresh voice of Ravel and a new musical era. The trio includes many wonderful details of construction and expression including novelties both exotic and presciently neoclassical.
The trio opens with a movement marked modéré, a sonata whose dreamy themes in a modal cast spaciously float in a surprisingly placid sequence that is more suggestive than argumentative, dream rather than discourse. There are two clear themes. The first is rhythmic, brief and somewhat dark, the second delicate, lyrical and bright, both familiar as Ravel’s poetic language. The development focuses chiefly on the first, returns into the gentle dawn of the second and obliquely concludes with elements of both drawn into new harmonic reaches that feel resolved and fully realized in spite of the astonishingly spacious neutrality into which the music melts.
Next comes a glittering scherzo charged with brilliant rhythm and color that immediately recalls a similarly remarkable scherzo in Ravel’s quartet. The distinctive sonorities are formed by combinations of pizzicato, octave doublings in the strings and the illuminated writing for piano that first made Ravel famous. These techniques combined with the string trills, harmonics and tremolos found in the other movements describe the deliciously innovative palette from which both Ravel and Debussy painted their musical epiphanies. It is truly amazing that the innovative and complex writing for piano demands the utmost virtuosity yet blends so perfectly without overwhelming the chamber textures. Indeed, Ravel is among the few great originators of new ensemble sonorities. The title “pantoum” refers to a Malaysian form of poetic verse adopted by a variety of French writers of the period and applied here to purely musical language by a most ingenious Ravel. Three different themes alternate and shift positions according to a precise literary plan across multiple stanzas. While following this scheme, Ravel still maintains the clear and simple structure of a scherzo and trio, a ternary form like the Bergerettes.
The third, slow movement is titled Passacaille, the French equivalent to the Italian Passacaglia, an old Baroque theme and variations form built around a ground bass melody that recurs through ever changing contexts. Ravel composed a brilliant eightmeasure theme of ponderous beauty that begins low in the piano, climbs up into the cello, rises soulfully with the violin and continues to be ceremoniously exchanged among the intimately entwined players in a long line that swells and sinks with subtle but profound intensity. Sparse and remote, the misty lament is treated to an especially poignant treatment by a string duo with ancient-sounding hollow harmonies and a final jagged contemplation in the deepest rage of the solo piano, a return to the primordial ground bass. Haunting and timeless, this is the trio’s unforgettable center of gravity.
Several commentators have described Ravel’s predicament in finishing the trio: with the sudden outbreak of WWI, he became nearly manically compelled to wrap up the composition in order to enlist in military service. Ravel described his own final effort as driven by “insane heroic rage.” The music is bright and energetic without any traces of anger, but many argue that the finale’s initial promise may have been compromised by haste or distraction. It begins with one of the grandest splashes of color in the literature with compelling new sonorities. The meter alternates between 5/4 and 7/4, unusual time signatures drawn from Basque influence. A wash of triumphant gestures swirl up and down dynamic arcs in a fantasia of shifting tempi. The unmistakably conclusive wave is punctuated by the brief recurrent motif featuring a dotted-rhythm and the fundamental stepwise whole note turns that characterize the themes of all four movements in a typically French but especially subtle cyclic recall. There is energy and sweep but some lament a loss of focus on precise chamber textures as the piano trio strains, through smoke and mirrors, to evoke the grandeur of an orchestra. Yet it is all extraordinary chamber psychedelia. After the variety of meticulous form, mood and motion in the previous movements, the last is a welcome gust, free and wild, a flurry in the wake of a man suddenly called into urgent action on another front.
© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.