• Maurice Ravel

    Maurice Ravel descended from a distinguished lineage of French composers as a student of Gabriel Fauré, himself a pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns. But he was strongly influenced as a young composer by contemporary Russian music, which he heard conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov at the Universal Exposition in 1889. An accomplished pianist and composer of stunningly virtuosic works (for example, Jeux d'eau and Gaspard de la nuit), Ravel is also known for his extraordinary orchestration of works by other composers (Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition) as well as in his own music, especially the ballet score Bolero (1928) and the orchestrations of his piano works Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910), Ma mère l'oye (1911), and the Tombeau de Couperin (1919).

    Ravel gained some early renown with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, composing a 1912 ballet on a Greek mythological theme, Daphnis et Chloé. Little is known about how this score, Ravel's longest, developed, and even less is known about his compositional process in general, since he made sure to destroy his sketches and drafts.

    In 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La valse, only to reject the score. The two never spoke again. Ravel quit Paris for the countryside, but returned often. With the death of Debussy (whom Ravel knew and respected, though the two were never close friends), Ravel assumed the position of the leading composer in France. As a founding member of the Société musicale indépendante (created with his former teacher Fauré), Ravel actively promoted contemporary music, and he supported the best of the next generation of French composers, collectively known as Les Six, including Eric Satie. Ravel toured the United States to great acclaim in 1928, meeting George Gershwin and absorbing jazz in Harlem and New Orleans.

    A decade later, back in France and suffering the lasting effects of a head injury sustained in car accident, Ravel subjected himself to brain surgery. He died not long after, at age 62, and was buried with his family in a cemetery west of the 17th arrondissement of Paris.

  • Notes on the Piece

    In his marvelous biographical novel about Ravel, French writer Jean Echenoz endeavored—in just over 100 pages—to capture the elegant manners and fastidious habits of the composer. Echenoz devoted discrete chapters to Ravel’s bathing ritual, his struggles with insomnia, and the elaborate wardrobe and ablutions he took with him on tour to the United States in 1927.

    That same year, Ravel oversaw a recording of a beloved early work, his String Quartet in F Major, a composition that is no less mannered than the composer himself.

    Puffing cigarettes in the London studio of the Aeolian recording company, Ravel made sure that the quartet was performed and recorded by his chosen ensemble, the International Quartet, in a manner that made it more classical sounding than the notes on the page would suggest. He wanted it to be restrained, held back, and he stressed precision in the tempos, melodic phrasing, and harmonic language.

    No single pitch could be more important than those surrounding it. Once this level of exactitude had been reached by the performers, Ravel gave the recording his seal of approval.

    The quartet was old by the time it was recorded. Ravel completed it in 1903, while still a student of Gabriel Fauré’s at the Paris Conservatoire, and he hoped that it would earn him a prestigious Rome Prize in composition. It neither won the prize nor earned him praise from his teacher. And the reviews were mediocre. Ravel left the Conservatoire in a huff, thus earning himself the respect of the fickle Parisian public. He admitted that the quartet had technical problems, but he convinced himself, out of love for the score, that these could be solved by high-caliber performers.

    Ravel treasured the quartet for its classicism, its way of looking back at and drawing on the past. Of course that past could not be recovered, and in all of his works, there is a sense of loss. At times the feeling is wistful, at other times melancholic, even devastating. His String Quartet in F Major offers all of these sentiments within the constraints of a four-movement structure that privileges cyclic return.

    The first movement is an exquisite reimagining of sonata form, the three-part structure that governed instrumental music of the late 18th century. It’s the musical equivalent of a Bildungsroman, a tale of educational enlightenment. Musical themes are presented, then taken on an adventure, and finally brought back home again, sadder but wiser. Listen carefully and you will notice that all of the elements of sonata form are there, but disarticulated: The harmonies eschew logical patterning; dissonant pitches are left hanging in the air; and chords of four and five notes substitute for standard triads. The second movement breaks from the mold of typical fast-movement forms by referring to fandango guitar playing. The third movement is a hybrid of instrumental and vocal gestures, its three main sections interrupted by passages redolent of Fauré’s arias. The fourth movement, a rondo, recalls the themes of the previous movements to provide structural cohesion for the quartet as a whole, while complicating its own internal logic.

  • Watch

    Jeremy Geffen introduces Ravel's String Quartet in F Major

  • Watch

    The Hagen Quartet performs the third movement from Ravel's String Quartet in F Major.

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