Ravel Piano Trio in Am, M. 67

performed by the Beaux Arts Trio, or below by the Joachim Trio

(cover image by Aaron Burden)

I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.

Ravel, of his piano trio

Ravel’s piano trio was written in 1914, in the French-Basque commune of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near his birthplace. At the time of composition, he was also working on a piano concerto based on Basque themes, but this work was later abandoned. What we have of its existence is the impression it made on this piece, as the opening movement is said to be “Basque in coloring.” There’s a lot more we’ll see from the rhythms and things, too.

World War I, of all things, was what pushed its completion. It’s not a ‘war piece’ in the respect that we usually think, not inspired by war as much as it was hurried on by it. It was finished so he could enlist. The work was completed by September, and Ravel was accepted as a nurse’s aid in October. By March of 1916, he was a volunteer truck driver.

The work was dedicated to Ravel’s counterpoint teacher André Gedalge, who almost earned himself a spot in the French series. The work was first performed in January of 1915 with Alfredo Casella at the piano.

Anyone who knows Ravel’s work, to any degree, knows that he is a master of color and texture. Whether for piano solo or a full orchestra, the vibrance and texture of his work is outstanding, and it seems he was keen here to achieve that same standard. He was also aware of some potential imbalance for the piano trio, though. Wiki says:

Ravel was aware of the compositional difficulties posed by the genre: how to reconcile the contrasting sonorities of the piano and the string instruments, and how to achieve balance between the three instrumental voices – in particular, how to make that of the cello stand out from the others, which are more easily heard. In tackling the former problem, Ravel adopted an orchestral approach to his writing: by making extensive use of the extreme ranges of each instrument, he created a texture of sound unusually rich for a chamber work.

The work is in four movements, as below, and has a duration of about a half hour:

  1. Modéré
  2. Pantoum (Assez vif)
  3. Passacaille (Très large)
  4. Final (Animé)

The first movement, it is said, draws on the Basque zortziko, and is in 8/8 time, divided as 3+2+3, but this mixed-meter situation isn’t really wildly obvious in most places. To say that it has this different meter and is based on a Basque dance rhythm likely gives you the impression that it’s going to be lively and boisterous. It isn’t. The movement is in sonata form, but not without Ravel’s own shaping, the second theme not being transposed, but remaining in the tonic key, resulting in what Blair Johnston calls an “atypically tonic-saturated exposition,” but the work ultimately ends in the relative major of A minor, that being C major.

The piano opening is clearly the kind of texture we’re used to hearing from Ravel, and by the time the violin begins to echo the gesture, we’re sucked into the fluid, largely subdued, mellow character that pervades the work as a whole. The cello’s first, deeply-voiced utterance is beautiful. Master of orchestration, indeed. It’s captivating writing, not in an exciting, flashy way, but hypnotic, arresting, alluring and crystalline. It’s almost a little haunting how that opening theme sticks around, and in a way, suitable that the first movement is “tonic-saturated.”

What we hear is Ravel also sticks to the tried-and-true forms for the four movements. As Johnston says:

The Piano Trio in A minor is a true sonata for three players, rich in the harmonic and textural innovations Ravel had accomplished in the prewar years, but ultimately, and very possibly more significantly (Ravel certainly felt so), composed around balanced, quintessentially Classical patterns.

The second movement is what Johnston calls “the most typically French to most listeners,” and is based on the standard scherzo form with themes in A minor and F sharp minor, and a trio in F major, with meters like 4/2 and 3/4 throughout the work. Interestingly, as straightforward as a scherzo with trio might sound, the ‘Pantoum’ title does seem curious. Wikipedia tells us:

The name of the movement refers to a Malaysian verse form, in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. While Ravel never commented on the significance of the movement’s title, Brian Newbould has suggested that the poetic form is reflected in the way these two themes are developed in alternation.

Who knew? It’s an exciting thing, French, Basque, Malaysian (but not in any melodic way you’d actually hear….)  And yes, the scherzo is lively, but no, not in the standard triple-meter form you’d expect. It has all the verve that a scherzo should provide, but is a short movement with lots of texture, ripples in piano, plucked strings, and reaches wonderfully rich heights. It’s at times chirpy, with almost bluesy shades…?

The passacaille third movement is based on an eight-bar pattern, but with inexact repetition. In fact the content here is based on the first theme of the previous Pantoum. It’s melancholic, pentatonic, somber, largely quiet, and captivating in all the right ways.

The finale again presents irregular time signatures, but it’s really quite rare here that I get the ‘off-kilter’ exotic-sounding mixed-meter feeling that you kind of expect to get when you see odd time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4. We have another sonata form, and by the time we reach this flashy, shimmery finale, I feel satiated. Neither of Ravel’s piano concertos are exactly the kind of Ravel I wanted to hear write a piano concerto, if that makes sense, but this is the Ravel I wanted to hear write a piano trio. It’s quintessentially him, with more of the richness, shades of dark blue, waves of melancholy and fullness that I’d love to have heard rom a larger work.

It hits all the high points, as it should, of what Ravel absolutely does best, and it’s a testament to his writing that it was done in this little trio. Ravel’s quartet is also, obviously, a truly wonderful piece, but with a piano present here, the inspiration is of a higher level. Superb.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more Ravel, and thanks so much for reading.

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