In 1903, the 28-year-old Ravel was completing his studies at the Paris Conservatory. By this time he had been studying there for half of his life, and had entered the much-desired Grand Prix de Rome competition several times, though never receiving higher than second place. This first and only string quartet again failed to win him the prestigious award. However, the Quartet in F major is an early demonstration of Ravel’s brilliant juxtaposition of formality and sensuality, and his incredible use of tone color. At times it sounds like a much fuller string section than four instruments.
It is a common occurrence for artists to thrive within some sort of limitation or structure. So it was with Ravel, whose music blossomed under restraint. Though Ravel may have been the consummate perfectionist composer, he seems to have felt a certain freedom to be bold and spontaneous in writing the String Quartet. The String Quartet is often considered Ravel’s first masterpiece, and continues to be one of the most widely performed chamber music works in the classical repertoire, representing Ravel’s early achievements and rise from obscurity.
The Quartet does follow the traditional four-movement classical structure. Like Debussy’s String Quartet of a decade earlier, Ravel’s Quartet also uses themes cyclically throughout the work. Ravel dedicated the piece to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré. The first movement, marked Allegro moderato – Très doux (very sweet) is full of lyrical and soaring lines on the violin. The second movement, the shortest of the Quartet, is marked Assez vif (rather lively). The music shifts back and forth between pizzicato and more lyrical sections, all highlighting the triple meter with different rhythmic combinations reminiscent of Iberian folk music. The slower, more lyrical middle section of the movement sounds at times almost timeworn – primeval or exotic – with the first violin playing creaky, rising lines while the other strings pluck out eerie accompaniment. Low, pizzicato runs leap back into the first section material, and barge ahead to a stomping conclusion.
The nocturne-like third movement, Très lent (very slow), recycles melodic material from the first movement, moving between tension and relaxation throughout, with effective use of tremolo in the supporting lines. At several moments, the first violin soars high, full of romantic bittersweetness, then subsides, as stranger and more suspenseful themes take over. Although the music is slow and contemplative, there is a sense of inevitable movement forward, as if we are strapped into a roller coaster car moving slowly on the track. Finally, it comes to rest high and soft, giving some peace after a great deal of disquiet.
The finale, Vif et agité (lively and agitated), starts and ends stormily, with moments of respite. Vigorous eighth notes open and are answered by recollections of the first movement. There is great unity in the String Quartet, with the cyclical themes throughout.