After the death of Debussy in 1918 Ravel was considered the leading French composer. So it was natural that he was asked to contribute to a special Debussy commemorative supplement for La Revue musicale. Appearing in December 1920, that supplement included what would become the first movement of the Sonata for Violin and Cello. Ravel had begun this movement in April 1920, and would need almost two years to complete the four movements of the Sonata.
This lean, ruthlessly linear Sonata picks up some of the aesthetic cast and economy of means of Debussy’s late work. “The music is stripped to the bone,” Ravel wrote. “Harmonic charm is renounced, and there is an increasing return of emphasis on melody.”
Ravel uses elements of cyclical thematic transformation to unify the work. The opening violin figuration, with its major/minor mode interaction, returns later in other movements, as does the angularly leaping second theme in the cello. The major/minor duality is again present in the second movement, a scherzo also driven by the contrast between bowed and plucked sonority. Ravel apparently knew Kodály’s 1914 Duo for violin and cello (and at its premiere in April 1922, Ravel’s Sonata was also labeled “Duo”) and there are clear intimations of Kodály and Bartók and Hungarian folk music in the pungent dissonances and virtuosic verve of Ravel’s music. Its tunes, as in the chorale of the slow movement, are usually modal. The austere chorale wraps around a core of contrasting fury, distilled in part from that second theme in the opening movement. The athletic, multifarious finale is shaped by tonal centers on C and F-sharp, and that relationship of an augmented fourth is reflected in some of the themes, particularly those with a Hungarian flavor. At the close of this strenuously polyphonic piece, Ravel combines several of the Sonata’s themes into a zesty contrapuntal climax.
— John Henken