No to Harmony, Yes to Melody

Safe haven. © Charles Thibo

A prayer or rather an incantation. Maurice Ravel on a Japan inspired rave? At the turn of the last century many French artists became infatuated with Japan’s traditional art – its painting, its music, its haiku literature. Between 1920 and 1922 Ravel wrote his Sonata for Violin and Cello, M. 73; he dedicated it to Claude Debussy, and I detect at least a hint of the Asian concept of minimalism and purity in this piece. Ravel wrote it in his safe haven “Le Belvédère”, located in Montfort l’Amaury, 50 km south-west of Paris, inspired every day by his Japanese garden.

Ravel started from the idea of two themes central to all four movements and introduced in the Allegro. The first is an alternation of the minor and major triads, the second is a succession of sevenths. But the composer struggled. He wrote large passages again and again. By February 1921 he had finished the first movement. In September he noted: “This piece is a beast and gives me a lot of trouble.” In February 1922 he wrote: “The duo is finished. But then again I saw that the scherzo is much too developed and furthermore very bad. I will rewrite it entirely with new elements.”

The piece not only gave its composer some trouble, an unsuspecting audience may feel equally challenged. While its structure follows the classical example with a long first movement and the following movements taking up the previously introduced material, Ravel uses intertwined contrapuntal elements. Bare sounds – note the amazing pizzicato* in the second movement – and the total absence of any lyrical decorum make it an awkward piece recalling such avant-garde composers like Bela Bartok and György Ligeti. “The allure of harmony is rejected and increasingly there is a return of emphasis on melody”, Ravel said about his work.

Susan Baer wrote in 1992 a PhD thesis on the “The Virtuoso Violin Works of Maurice Ravel” and here is what she noted about the sonata: “The instrumentation […] was not original with Ravel. In the 18th century, combinations such as violin and viola de gamba or violin and cello were very popular. Carl Stamitz, Haydn, Boccherini, and Pleyel were among a number of composers who wrote violin and cello duos. Very little was written for this combination again until the 20th century.”

Baer writes furthermore that at the premiere, the performing artists Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (violin) and Maurice Maréchal (cello) reportedly played more dissonances than Ravel had actually written, and the press reviews were disastrous. Ravel, who was unable to attend the premiere, reacted acidly: “I have also heard that I would leave for Africa and that I would get married. What I wasn’t told is which of these two events will happen first.” He was not the kind of man being impressed by journalists’ opinions.

If you want to explore this work, I suggest you listen to the album of Julia Fischer (violin) and Daniel Müller-Schott (cello) featuring also a work for violin and cello written by Zoltan Kodaly that I have presented already. Ravel was familiar with Kodaly’s works and it is no coincidence that Fischer and Müller-Schott have recorded these two pieces on one album.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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