Today the finale of the project: Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. Around lunchtime I drive home. I have time. I take time to watch the fields I drive by once I have left the city. Fertile land. Less herbicides than in the past. Every year I have the impression the plots with wildflowers become more numerous. I like that. I love to see the golden grain, the red poppies, the blue cornflowers and the white chamomile. Harmony, serenity, beauty – it’s all there. And it’s in Ravel’s music.
Ravel wrote this piece in 1902/03 and the French researcher Marcel Marnat considers it as the composer’s first really great work. It’s beautiful. And the recording by the Quatuor Ebène is just as beautiful which makes the set of these three quartets so precious to me. Three first class pieces performed by a truly perceptive ensemble: Debussy, Fauré, Ravel. Fauré became Ravel’s teacher after Ravel had given up on learning anything useful at the Paris Conservatory. Fauré was the reason of his return, Fauré’s opinion mattered. Therefore he dedicated the quartet to his teacher.
Debussy the saviour
As Ravel advanced with the score, he showed parts of it to Fauré, who did not react overly enthusiastic. That had more to do with Fauré’s withdrawn character than with Ravel’s piece, but Ravel was easily disturbed and considered rewriting the finale. He asked Debussy for a second opinion. “In the name of all the gods of music and in my own name, don’t touch anything you have written in your quartet!”, Debussy implored him.
A strange situation arose. While Fauré impressed Ravel a lot as a teacher and while Ravel’s long, lyrical themes come close to Fauré’s language, Ravel, probably unknown to himself, was already taking his distances from his master and following the path Debussy had taken himself some ten years earlier (see that earlier post). Marnat describes it as a “detached eloquence” that Debussy opposed to the Romantic language, a bit like Impressionist painters took an unemotional view of thei subject and tried to catch a momentary visual effect without any subjective interpretation. The extended pizzicato* in the second movement and the finale are an excellent example to illustrate this.
Marnat observes another highly intersting thing: Ravel’s quartet is on of the last quartets written in the classical form. In 1904 and in 1907/08 respectively Arnold Schönberg would write his first two string quartets – for the second one see here – which the scholar situates at the “antipodes of the rules observed by Ravel”. With the invention of 12-tone-serialism and total serialism (Boulez), chamber music in Western Europe would head into a strange, new world of sound shapes. Marnat wonders why. “There is not a shadow of fatigue or decadence [in Ravel’s quartet], much to the contrary a superb psychic vitality [and] an impressive clarity as far as aesthetics are concerned.” I agree.
© Charles Thibo