Maurice Ravel: String Quartet

Context

Composed when he was 28 years old, Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet was completed in April 1903. The work was premiered by the Heymann Quartet at a concert held by the Société Nationale de Musique the following year. Ravel was greatly influenced and inspired by Claude Debussy’s String Quartet, which was composed some 10 years previous. Debussy appreciated Ravel’s work and was fond of his opposing ideas and sent the young composer letters of encouragement. However the same could not be said for Ravel’s tutor, Gabriel Fauré, to whom the piece is dedicated. 

 

The Music

The quartet is set into four movements and shows Ravel’s approaches to harmonic language, texture balancing and melody writing. 

 

Movement I – Allegro Moderato – Très deux

The opening movement is set in a traditional classical sonata form, which is subsequently based on two themes. The lyrical character of this opening movement showcases Ravel’s melodic writing. The rise and fall of the first theme is firstly played in unison before then taken off by each member of the quartet. The second theme is nostalgic and reflective in character and is played firstly by the violin and viola in two-octave unison. The slow bubbling underneath from the cello adds to the ebb and flow of this theme and offers an intriguing texture to the work. As the work grows in intensity and dynamic, the recapitulation section brings back the second theme predominantly, with Ravel making subtle changes. This movement slows right down before ending quietly. 

 

Movement II – Assez vif – Très rythmé

Similarly to Debussy’s quartet, the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet is an animated scherzo. Opening with a pizzicato sequence, the opening melody played by the violin is set in the Aeolian mode. Here we see more of Ravel’s harmonic languages as he begins to blur the borders between tonal and modal writing. The recurring pizzicato theme has been a hot topic of debate as to what it could represent. Some say it shows Ravel’s Spanish descent, whereas others believe it could be from when he first heard Javanese Gamelan.

The fiery opening is opposed by a slow and solemn central section that is initially led by the cello. Now much quieter in dynamic, the nuanced melodic kernels that Ravel lays down become really effective in the overall picture. Remnants of the pizzicato theme rear their heads during parts of this wistful section. A short reprise of the opening section finishes this movement off in an energetic fashion. 

 

Movement III – Très lent

The slow third movement is initiated with the viola playing the main theme. There are many melodic links between this movement and the first, which sees Ravel develop his opening themes to the maximum. This rhapsodic movement is strongly in Gb major, although it does move some other minor keys before landing back in the home key. Ravel’s defiance of conventional harmonic rules shows in this movement as the music is completely littered with open consecutive fifths. This gives an openness to the harmony, which allows Ravel to manipulate the texture to fit these ideas. This movement ends quietly without disruption, with the quartet slowly drifting off. 

 

Movement IV – Vif et agité

The aggressive opening to the finale rests firmly in F major, with Ravel making small movements through different keys throughout. Ravel also plays more with time in this movement as melodies move through 5 – 8 – 4 and 3. Short interludes of melody bring the intensity down, with the accompaniments offering shimmering tremolandi. The changes between calm and energetic sections adds to the energy of the movement. Themes from the first movement in particular are showcases again in the finale. Similarly to the opening, the finale movement ends with a short reprise of the opening passages, thus ending the quartet in dramatic fashion. 

 

Final Thoughts

Although perhaps not his most popular work, Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet remains a staple in chamber music today. The work poses many challenges for any quartet, from the technical demands to the orchestration. A fiery work that showcases the different guises of Ravel’s talents. 

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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