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Though he was something of a prodigy, and hard-working, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) found his experience of the Paris Conservatoire and the official Parisian musical world frustrating. Having failed to win any prizes as a pianist, he left the Conservatoire in 1895, only to return two years later to study composition with Fauré. In the first years of the 20th century, Ravel made five efforts to win the Prix de Rome. His elimination in the first round of the 1905 competition caused a scandal, when the chosen finalists all turned out to be students of one professor, who was on the jury.
But by that time Ravel did not really need that acknowledgment of conventional success. He had already begun to gather critical attention for works such as his String Quartet and Jeux d’eau for piano, and had become part of a loose circle of Parisian artists and intellectuals who thought of themselves as Les Apaches, as outsiders. Although he continued to refuse most French honors, Ravel nonetheless became a central figure in French arts, and 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 (as well as contributions from Bartók, Dukas, Falla, Roussel, Satie, and Stravinsky, among others). Ravel had begun this movement in April 1920, and would need almost two years to complete the four movements of the Sonata. “In my own work of composition I find a long period of conscious gestation, in general, necessary,” Ravel wrote later. “During this interval I come gradually to see, and with growing precision, the form and evolution which the subsequent work should have as a whole.”
This lean, ruthlessly linear Sonata, dedicated to the memory of Debussy, picks up some of the esthetic 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 is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.