Ravel, Maurice (1875-1937)
Quartet in F major (1903)
As well-established as it may have been in musical history since Haydn, the German tradition of the string quartet was deeply influenced by the new aesthetics of the Second Vienna School at the turn of the twentieth-century, as well as by the arrival of Debussy and Ravel. In 1903, ten years after Debussy's Quartet in G, Maurice Ravel, in composing the Quartet in F, would bring forth his first major publication. And what a stroke of genius ! Subtleness in color, perfection in form, a taste for balance, cyclical unity, harmonic development... the entire world of Ravel is at hand.
Its concise and clear manner has often rewarded Ravel's music with comparisons to the inner workings of a clock. However, as traditional in structure and inclined towards diatonic rather than chromatic melodies as it may be, its overall harmonic spectrum is mostly modal. The Quartet in F is derived from nine principal themes which share similar characteristics and from which the work evolves melodically. Ravel transforms these musical motives through a wide array of timbral colors and harmonies.
In the very first measures of the allegro moderato, Ravel's subtle introduction of his first theme creates a sense of transparency and light unrivalled in the repertoire for quartet. The second, more fervent theme, is played in unison by the first violin and the viola. Both themes later coalesce during the development, and after a brief peak, the calm and lyrical atmosphere found at the beginning is brought back in the recapitulation.The second movement, to be played briskly and with a strong sense of rhythm, is a joyful and witty scherzo, featuring a dazzling use of pizzicattis and a slow middle section where an intensely nostalgic lament is voiced by the cello. The third movement, much slower, is an extensive meditation on the themes expressed in the preceding movements, but this time combined and transformed in a free style that recalls improvisation. This extraordinary piece, made even more magnificent by the use of mutes, culminates in the high registers of all four instruments. The brisk and restless finale which follows the dreamy textures of the preceding movement unfolds in a virtuosic swirl where themes undergo further transformations. The alternating measures in 5/8 and 5/4 generate a sense of impatience and urgency. Gabriel Fauré, who taught Ravel and to whom the Quartet is dedicated, followed the work's evolution and expressed little appreciation for this movement. The young Ravel, about to change the finale of his Quartet, showed it to Debussy, who said, " In the name of the gods of music and in my own, don't change a single note of what you wrote!''
Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais
(translation : Marc Hyland)