Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) provided the following terse description of his A-minor Trio: "The Trio, whose first theme is Basque-inspired, was composed in its entirety in 1914 at Saint-Jean-de-Luz." This hardly does justice to the work, certainly the most refined chamber music he ever wrote. It represented the culmination of his pre-war output, which included music such as the String Quartet, the opera L'heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour), and the ballet score Daphnis and Chloe.
The first movement's opening theme bears some resemblance to the zortzico, a fast Basque dance. This movement may also be the final resting place of Ravel's roughly contemporary ideas for a Basque fantasy for piano and orchestra. "Pantoum," the trio's scherzo, uses a poetic conceit for its formal basis: The second and fourth parts of each phrase become the first and third parts of the following phrase. Ravel borrowed the idea from Baudelaire, who did the same thing with the lines of each stanza in his poem "Harmonie du soir."
The "Passacaille," a form popular during the 17th and early 18th centuries, unfolds over a repeated eight-measure pattern, gradually building to a climax before dying away. The shimmering radiance of the "Final" not only marks the end of the trio, but also of an era for both the composer and the culture his music had represented. Much of his future output would either forego this kind of sonic beauty (works like his Violin Sonata are almost militantly lean-sounding) or deconstruct it violently (for example, La valse, which visits the horrors of World War I on the elegant waltzes of Imperial Vienna) to create a sound world with a rawness more akin to that of The Soldier's Tale.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.