MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Often put in the same category as his elder Claude Debussy, the French composer Maurice Ravel claimed to have “always personally followed a direction opposed to that of the symbolism of Debussy.” Although he had an interest in following fashion, dressing with “showy ties and frilly shirts,” he was an innovative precursor when composing music. He was a perfectionist, always expending his palette of styles using traditional forms and folk tunes, shying away from the new Schoenberg trend of atonality. He was known for his melodies, instrumental textures, and effects always attentive to form and craftsmanship.
“Sonate pour violon et piano,” (1923-27)
In 1917, Ravel attended a chamber-music concert featuring in his piano trio (1914) performed by violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1888-1961). She was an advocate of the music of her time. The first impression she had of Ravel was of a shy, nervous, stammering fox. Ironically, Ravel always compared Morhange’s manner to a cat. The fox named his prey, “Moune,” after his favorite Siamese cat. Although no information was found on an existent love relationship in Ravel’s life, Manuel Rosenthal (1904-2003), a disciple of Ravel, explained that Ravel once asked Moune to marry him. Embarrassed, she had to say “no” and explained though she loved him very much, they were not compatible for marriage. She remained one of his closest friend, his confident and his technical consultant when composing for violin.
In a 1920 letter to Moune, Ravel expressed the desire to compose a violin concerto for her, but instead he dedicated the sonata for cello and violin (1922) to her, and he composed the sonata for violin and piano for her in 1927, even though he always considered the violin and piano acoustically incompatible. Ravel explained that while writing the sonata, he imposed on himself the independence of the two instruments showing and emphasizing their incompatibility rather than balancing their contrast. When listening to the first movement, a sonata form, imagine a cat’s journey with the elegance of the violin’s lyricism and the short and curious interruption of the piano. The second movement, a blues, demonstrates Ravel’s taste for American jazz. The violin’s melody slides with one finger from note to note to imitate a saxophone while the piano simulates strummed guitar chords. The final movement, a perpetuum mobile, starts with hesitating figures to launch a high-speed, perpetual motion showing off the violin’s virtuosic capabilities.
When starting to compose this piece in 1923, Ravel had Hélène Jourdan- Morhange’s playing in mind, hoping that she would première the sonata. By the time the work was finished in 1927, her severe arthritis prevented her from performing it. It was the Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu (1881-1955) with Ravel himself at the piano, who premiered the sonata in Paris on May 30, 1927.
“Tzigane, Rapsodie de concert,” (1924)
Maurice Ravel first heard the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi (1893-1966), the grandniece of the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), at a private musical salon in England in 1922. Both d’Aranyi and Bela Bartók (1881-1945) were performing Bartók’s own sonata for violin and piano No. 1. Ravel was amazed by d’Aranyi’s musicality and flawless technical ability. He asked d’Aranyi to play Gypsy melodies from Hungary for an encore, which she did well into the early morning, mesmerizing Ravel. He explained to his friend Bartók that they inspired him to write a short piece of diabolical difficulty, conjuring up the “Hungary of his dreams.” Despite his initial enthusiasm to write a Gypsy flavored virtuoso showpiece, it was not until two years later that Ravel began working on Tzigane. It took him only a few days to finish the piece for violin and piano, just in time for its scheduled première in London on April 26, 1924. Even though the dedicatee received the score only a couple of days before the performance, the piece was wildly successful with the audience. D’Aranyi made such a hit with Tzigane that Ravel later provided a version for solo violin and orchestra.
Many European composers have been fascinated by the influence of gypsy music, as it contributes to the overall fabric of European culture. Ravel once said that if he would ever write something Arabian, it would be more Arabian than the real thing. The combination of Ravel’s rhythmical precision and his mischievous sense of humor, which can be found in his previous masterpiece La Valse, made reviewers perceive the piece at its première, as a parody of the “Liszt-Hubay- Brahms-Joachim school of Hungarian violin music.” Ravel described Tzigane as a virtuoso piece in the taste of a Hungarian Rhapsody.
Ravel, who considered the violin and piano acoustically incompatible, gives the entrance to the violin alone, specifying the dark, rich sound of the G-string for the first twenty-seven measures. This makes the piece unique, beginning with a cadenza. The sweeping piano enters as a safety net under the whispering violin double-stops tremolo, providing a dramatic entrance. The soloist is propelled through a series of virtuoso passages to a fiendishly difficult dénouement. Although its leaping double- stops, harmonics at blinding speed, and combination of left and right hand pizzicato passages have kept many violinists up late, its difficulties go beyond the technical. Freewheeling rubato and sudden tempo changes diabolically pull the performer apart between sentimentality and blurry speed, much in keeping with the greatest gypsy folk tradition.