The Sureness and Lucidity of a Madman

Relax. © Charles Thibo

Tension. At one moment deeply relaxed, anxious at another. Enjoying the day, apprehensive about tomorrow. In 1914 Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Trio in A Minor (M. 67). He dedicated it to his counterpoint teacher André Gédalge, the trio was first performed in Paris in January 1915. He had been mulling the idea of a trio for years, but he was spurred by the tense political situation in the summer of 1914. War was in the air and Ravel wanted to enlist in the army.

“I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes”, he wrote to his pupil Maurice Delage before he had started to write the piece. And later in August he would remark ro Delage: “Yes, I am working on the Trio with the sureness and lucidity of a madman.” Two months later he had finished the piece, and he wrote to Igor Stravinsky: “The idea that I should be leaving at once made me get through five months’ work in five weeks! My Trio is finished.”

The trio is a strange piece. The trio is a lovely piece. Full of surprises, strange melodic turns, funny rhythms. While I listened to it, I came to think, here is a man who has so much to say and who is afraid that he will not have a chance to say it before his time is up. Ravel took part in World War I as a nurse and a driver for an artillery unit. But in August 1914 he could not say whether he would get into harm’s way or not. Both the Germans and the French were convinced that the war would be over within weeks and that victory would be theirs.

The complexity of Ravel’s pieces did not exactly endear him to musicians. But then Ravel didn’t want to write for the amateur anyway. He conceived the trio mostly in his head before he sat down to write the first notes as he indicated in his latter to Delage. He adopted an orchestral approach and made extensive use of the extreme ranges of the piano, the violin and the cello. The pianist Richard Dowling writes in a preface to an edition of the trio that Ravel created a texture of sound unusually rich for a chamber work. He employed colouristic effects such as trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos, and arpeggios, thus demanding a high level of technical proficiency from all three musicians.

It took a while until I consciously listened to this piece for the first time. It took no time at all to decide that I like it. It has been recorded by Florian Donderer, Tanja Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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