In 1903, when the 28-year-old Ravel wrote his String Quartet, he was already well known in the Parisian musical scene, and getting considerable critical recognition (much of it unfavorable, but recognition nonetheless). On the other hand, he was still a student of dubious standing at the Paris Conservatoire, attending Gabriel Fauré’s composition class and trying to obtain both the composition prize and the coveted state-administered Prix de Rome. He never succeeded in either quest, and the repeated snubbing of Ravel by the old guard in general, and the Conservatoire old guard in particular, eventually turned into a public scandal. Ravel submitted the first movement of the quartet in the competition for the Conservatoire. It lost, and since it was Ravel’s third failure to take a prize, occasioned his final (but by no means first) dismissal from that august institution. It was about time: he had been there 14 years, since he was 14 years old.
The finished Quartet drew a very mixed response. The normally supportive Fauré, to whom it was dedicated, did not much care for it and called the last movement “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” Debussy, on the other hand, is said to have written a letter telling Ravel, “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your quartet,” though no such letter is extant and nobody seems to remember where the story about it comes from. One prominent critic called Ravel “one of the masters of tomorrow.” Others dismissed Ravel as a Debussy clone, which was excusable but wrong. Ravel learned much from Debussy and always held the older composer in great esteem, but insisted on going his own way, and sometimes justifiably claimed credit for influencing Debussy, or at least anticipating a stylistic development better known from a later Debussy piece. Their personal relationship was cordial but cool, partly because they, like everyone around them, started to see each other as rivals.
The Quartet’s idyllic opening movement is drawn in pastel, an illustration of how Ravel’s scoring can be both delicate and lush. The ambling first theme is unimposing, indeed casual sounding, yet it dominates the movement. There are few moments when it or one of its variants is not prominent, and Ravel will continually bring it back and weave it into later movements. The second movement is a scherzo of sorts, with a fast main section sandwiched around a slow section. The main section is marked by an energetic pizzicato motif and rapturous lyrical second theme. Its 6/8 meter sounds sometimes in three, sometimes in two, but often in both at the same time, causing a motoric pushing and pulling. The slow middle section transforms the lyrical second theme several ways, most notably by having the second violin strum it in chords. The “very slow” third movement has a decidedly nocturnal cast to it, not least because the dark-toned viola is unusually prominent. A variant of the first movement’s principal theme is an integral part of the thematic structure. The finale is both energetic and elusive, a character it owes to its hard-driving but shifting 5/8 meter. The more lyrical sections are, again, derived from the first movement.
— Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also contributes to the Salzburg Festival program book.