Ravel String quartet in F major

performed by the Emerson String Quartet

I hope you listened to and enjoyed the very first post of July, Debussy’s string quartet. It’s one of the most famous quartets in the repertoire, I’d say, especially from a composer who lived into the 20th century. It’s supple and rich and expressive but also epic and complicated and even a bit tiring. It shows influence from Wagner and a forward-thinking structure that dismisses tradition and moves in a new direction.

And most people can’t help but think of the other famous French composer and his only string quartet.

Maurice Ravel studied under Gabriel Fauré after the Paris Conservatoire found his work too modern for their tastes (or just the director’s), and apparently the Prix de Rome was the carrot dangling in front of every French composer at the time. It served well enough as a motivation for the young Ravel, at that time only in his mid twenties, but, as Wikipedia says, “By 1904 it was becoming clear to the musical public that Ravel was the outstanding French composer of his generation.” That all being said, the response at its 1904 premiere was split, with some people recognizing Ravel as a definite talent and someone to keep an eye on, and others claiming it was strange and derivative, even Fauré himself not particularly caring for the work, apparently.

Composed right at a decade after the Debussy quartet, it is easy to see the resemblances, although I’m not so sure they were intentional. Debussy himself, mind you, praised the younger composer’s work. That would have been encouraging, I imagine.

The resemblances, in some ways, are unavoidable: they’re both Frenchmen, from a similar era, working around similar ideas (in more than just their quartets), and even (eventually) had the same Impressionist label slapped onto their backs. However, there are some major differences, as well.

While Wikipedia says “Ravel’s quartet is modelled [sic] on Debussy’s as far as the structure is concerned,” but I’m not entirely sure if that’s just talking strictly about the four-movement form (pretty common!) or the progression of the four movements, or what, but in many ways, the similarities stop there. I’d call Ravel’s quartet just slightly more classical, a bit more traditional in its structure, as well as the harmonies not quite pushing the envelope as much as in the Debussy. Let’s go.

The first movement has to be one of the most beautiful things written on paper in the past 120 years. That opening line in first violin sets the tone for the entire work, the first eight bars carving out a shape that becomes significant throughout the rest of the movement.

While we’re not so traditional as to be talking about eight-bar phrases and half-cadences and all that from Mozart’s day, there are two subjects to this sonata-form first movement, even if it seems the quartet kind of riffs on and orbits around the phrase that first gave the piece momentum. It sounds like everything sprouts organically from those first two bars in first violin. Things get more lively in accelerandos, cool down in diminuendos, all leading back to a ‘premiere tempo’ before rehearsal mark C. Listen for pizzicato, a serenade-like passage before first violin and viola play the second theme in unison.

An eighth-note triplet on beat 4 was already introduced in part of the first subject, but it plays a role in the second also, and with that we have our two subjects of the movement. There isn’t much more to say about it than that, because while the movement is quality craftsmanship of the highest order, creative, delicate, and inventive, it’s still identifiable, transparent, and outstandingly sensual. I’d describe it as a struggle, but not in any kind of violent or ominous way. Quite the opposite; it’s seductive, rich, supple, exciting, breathtaking… that kind of a ‘struggle’… need I be clearer? Truly stunning way to begin a quartet. Bravo. And as if it weren’t perfect enough, the movement ends with whispers of both themes in our ears before the lights dim and the curtain closes. Phew!

The scherzo is mildly crunchy, but playful, even mischievous, spirited and (sorry, but I’m going to be using this word a lot in this article, probably) seductive. It’s breathtaking how exciting this is, in direct contrast with the rich soft-focus lens atmosphere of the first movement, but we still have echoes of that carved-out melody even in the triple meter. The trio, on the other hand, is very slow, just the slightest bit melancholy, like when a delicious meal is over… the a Tempo marking brings the some of the liveliness of the scherzo back, but just a bit at first. The pizzicato builds excitingly and the cello starts the heartbeat going again before viola joins in and we’re back to the vibrant, even exotic-sounding scherzo.

Strings are muted for the third movement, where viola leads the way, followed by cello. It opens in a distant-sounding, somber call from afar. It sounds almost solemn, mournful, but after a few double bars (lots of tempo change in this work), we start to get similar echoes of the first movement, marked très calme, and the air clears a bit. The first violin seems to be reminiscing about the first movement, while the viola is determined to move on and do other pretty things. Cello introduces a more lively theme, marked energique, with a tempo change to Modéré, but things brighten again in a ‘not too fast’ section with first violin flittering up and down with 64th notes. You’ll hear it. There’s a sudden brightness and forward motion. This movement is definitely the least traditional (at least so far), with section after section of new expression. At times dramatic, at others somber, even languid, the third movement is perhaps the most distant, complex, least straightforward of the quartet, the most distant part of the work before things wrap up and come home in the finale. It’s also the longest movement.

We’re suddenly in an entirely different world, marked vif et agité, quickly, and du talon, or on the frog (of the bow). It’s in 5/8, certainly agitated, buzzy, and crunchy, but even here we have whiffs of that first movement, all the clearer at rehearsal mark C when we move into 5/4. You literally cannot miss it. This certainly brings to mind the cyclical nature of Debussy’s quartet, perhaps what Wiki was referring to in the similar structure of the piece, but Ravel is clearly working in more traditional forms, with the sonata-form, scherzo/trio, and a rondo-like thing in the finale.

But there’s so much familiarity in the finale that one does start to think again… are we cycling back on old material? If so, it’s fine, but it seems we’re not. There’s so much new content, cast in a totally different level of excitement that we can see it as almost entirely new, a familiar face in a bustling crowd. There are also tinges of Debussy’s quartet here, likely no direct quotes, but the use of triplets and phrasing call it to mind as more than just a passing similarity, but again, this is wholly Ravel.

The use of 5/8, 5/4, 3/4 and all the switching around gives this work an almost-off-kilter unpredictable pulse and excitement, and although we’ve called back on and quoted that heavenly, supple opening figure from the first movement, it ends in an entirely different manner from which it began. I think this work is a bit easier to wrap my head around than the Debussy (not that his was challenging, but) because Ravel cast his thematic elements and transformation and all the rest into pretty identifiable, traditional forms, and while that might seem safe and boring, the resulting work is obviously anything but. It’s an approachable, luscious, inviting, but also terribly exciting quartet with drive and motion, a gem of the quartet repertoire.

Stay tuned for more from Ravel this coming week as the beginning of our little month-long focus on 20th century works for violin from some people who I should give more attention to (kind of long for a series title, but it could work).


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