Ravel: Sonatine

performed by Martha Argerich
Not every piece of music has to be big and daring and overwhelming and complicated to be enjoyable. This piece is of quite small stature, coming in (with Ms. Argerich’s recording) at just around 11 minutes. It is in three movements, with repeating and transforming melodies throughout the first and third movements. The term ‘sonatine’ itself is a diminutive in reference to its size as a much smaller piece, not to its simplicity or any perceived insignificance. It is a fantastically demanding work, Ravel himself opting not to play the third movement in performances on tour.
The first movement was originally written to be entered into a competition. One of Ravel’s friends worked at the Weekly Critical Review and suggested he submit a composition. Ravel submitted what is now the first movement of Sonatine, but it was disqualified for being a measure or two over

the 75-bar limitation. Ravel was also the only participant. He lost a competition against no one else on a technicality. It didn’t matter, because the Weekly Critical Review was going out of business anyway, and eventually cancelled the competition.

Thankfully, Ravel kept his work and eventually wrote the other two movements, and published the full piece shortly thereafter for its first performance in 1906 by Mme Paule de Lestang in Lyon. The piece was dedicated to Ida and Cipa Godebski, to whose children he later dedicated his Ma mère l’oye suite. What a dedicated family.
Anyway, I generally tend to think Ravel is outstandingly brilliant, and this little piece of only a few short minutes is testament to that. It is small only in stature, but like many small people, has tons of personality to make up for it.
Something I especially appreciate about many of Ravel’s works is the atmosphere he builds through orchestration and use (manipulation?) of the sounds of the instrument(s) in the ensemble, or in this case, the solo piano, to elicit different effects and personalities and emotions and entire landscapes. That is certainly the case with this piece.  We are kind of… Not swept off our feet or whisked away… Whisked off our feet (?) right from the trickly, delicate opening. I feel this effect of smoothness and fluidity isn’t as effective in some of the slower interpretations; they come off as more belabored or clunky. It’s also the exact opposite of clumsy. It flows, with not a single misplaced trickle to ruin the soundscape Ravel paints. It has such a sense of motion.
The first movement is the longest of the three (at least in Argerich’s recording), and is in sonata form. The opening theme plays an important part not only in this movement, but in the rest of the piece, as it is used as the basis for variations in the second and third movements. The development section, while brief (as must be any sonata form under four minutes), is lively and eventful, but the music quiets down for a bit, and I am fooled almost every time into thinking we are into the second movement. In reality, this lead-in to the rest of the piece is kind of an intro to the variations to come on the opening bars.
The second is a minuet and trio without the trio, as again, it’s only three minutes of music. This piece sounds to me, while so very Ravelian, also to be quite baroque with the final two notes of the bass ending a musical line. It feels like the punctuation to an old Baroque dance, but the movement itself never quite develops into what feels like a waltz. It’s prim and proper and bears a noticeable resemblance in form and content to the opening movement.
Again, the very end of this movement, to me, feels different. It is suddenly heavy, bassy, and almost thunderous for a split second before splashing into the third and final movement of this piece, just slightly shorter than the first. It is noticeably frighteningly difficult. It sounds distinctly like his Jeaux d’eaux in its ‘watery’ character. It opens with “horn calls” in ascending fourths with tons of other stuff going on in the background. This movement is more noticeably similar to the first, although frantically more hectic. It’s less peaceful than the first two, but not unnerving. Almost a bit harried. The opening theme shows up, or at least echoes of it do; they’re unmistakable. I suppose this is all appropriate. The third movement is titled Animé after all. Ostinato seems to be a thing Ravel quite enjoys, and they are definitely present here. Wikipedia says “The third movement is a very difficult piece and has been described as a virtuosic tour de force; technical challenges include wild arpeggios, polyrhythms, rapid ostinati in awkward intervals, and hands conflicting with each other at great speed.” It’s bold and almost tiring to listen to when one thinks of playing it with only two hands of only five fingers each. But people do it. 
Classical music doesn’t have to be (and often isn’t) pretentious. Ravel typifies that.
There’s also another thing I love about Ravel that is also represented in this piece. I think I’ve spoken about it before in relation to Sibelius’ third symphony. I love deceptive simplicity! This is obviously a very complex piece; it’s easily audible. There’s something deliciously complex and intense and viscerally satisfying about a heavy, complicated 70-minute Mahler symphony and its all-encompassing scope, don’t get me wrong. Mahler was a genius; but so was Ravel, but in fabulously different ways. It’s irrelevant to his music, because I love his music, but one could argue (and many have) that Mahler was “full of himself.” Ravel seems definitely not to have been. Mahler’s complexity is a very in-your-face kind of depth and breadth. Ravel on the other hand, creates the same complexity and depth, but in a compact, darling little piano piece. I’m not comparing one against the other at all; Ravel didn’t usually do big and sprawling (there’s Daphnis et Chloe, and his two operas [both of which are around an hour or less] but nothing like Mahler or other symphonists). Even his piano concerti (generally considered more large-scale works) aren’t enormous. I find this fascinating.  The compact and pristine beauty of this piece, like his Gaspard and others, is stunning and so enjoyable. It is music everyone can understand, and at under 11 minutes, should be able to hold the attention of the even the more restless listener.

2 thoughts on “Ravel: Sonatine

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