Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1923-27) in three movements is, next to the Sonata for Violin and Cello, the least known of his chamber works and, like its counterpart, it breaks new ground. The instrumental style, especially, marks a significant departure from the Piano Trio of thirteen years earlier in which heavy textures and a late-Romantic conception of piano writing with abundant octaves and booming bass carried the day. In the first movement of this Sonata, a light and even ethereal texture predominates, much of it in the piano’s high registers; the often spare linearity is presented with a two-part or even monophonic texture in the piano, but with a continuity that never weakens.
The espressivo violin melody above this texture defines a clear E minor, an appropriate second-theme key; yet this melody never appears again. Its harmonisation at bars 55-84 is exclusively in the piano’s right hand, with parallel perfect fifths in the manner of Ravel’s most pronounced parallel-fifths essay, the song Ronsard à son âme. The end of this extended passage comes to a slowing point where F♯leans on E in the upper violin—apparently a codetta—but now, in the piano, the parallel fifths are doubled and an organum-like new theme appears. The A minor harmony suggests the subdominant of E or supertonic of G, and the listener wonders if there will even be a development.
Another surprise: yet another new theme appears, at bar 165, in the low register of the piano over a D pedal while the violin’s E♭ major/minor tremolo continues; this prepares the recapitulation of the first theme in the piano, with a clear dominant-to-tonic cadence. But the newest theme, now in the violin (bar 173), accompanies the first theme in the piano. It is the frequent appearance and disappearance of new thematic material that makes this continuously melodic and forward-moving movement difficult to reconcile with a familiar sonata form.
Ravel’s dating of 1923-27 for the Sonata, at the end of the published score, suggests a period of gestation that had lengthy interruptions. On harmonic grounds, one might hazard a guess that it was the second movement, ‘Blues’, that was composed first. This is more a French than an American blues, but it comes complete with blue notes, slow rag rhythms and ‘bent’ pitches. The abundance of dotted rhythms includes a motive recycled from the foxtrot in L’Enfant; without dots, one recognises it as a jazz ‘lick’ that Ravel could have borrowed from Milhaud’s La Création du monde of 1923.
Another echo of L’Enfant is in the bitonally notated beginning, with a G major triad (a hold-over from the first movement) in the violin above an A♭–E♭ pedal in the piano. This not really perceived as true bitonality; rather, it is equivalent to a major triad on the leading-note positioned over the tonic and dominant, a harmony that was used long before Ravel, though it appears prominently at the beginning of the ‘Valse américaine’ in the Garden Scene of L’Enfant. In the ‘Blues’, the same sonority—in various spacings and transpositions—reappears at intervals throughout the movement, and its persistence prompts the listener, in retrospect, to recall it as a subtle harmonic motive from the first movement (it emerges first at bars 10-11 of the first movement, then again at bars 17-22 and 28-29).
The first distinct theme is the melody on the piano in parallel triads that begins at bar 29. This is comparable to the fanfare in the finale of the Piano Trio and to another melody in the finale of the Concerto in G. All the other themes in this movement are recycled from the previous movements: the diminished octaves of bars 47-51 of the first movement reappear in the third at bar 52; two themes from bars 67-69 and 78-80 of the ‘Blues’ are transformed into bars 55-60 of the finale. The major/minor theme at bars 34-35 of the first movement reappears as a kind of valse sentimentale across bars 93-96 and 101-04 of the ‘Perpetuum mobile’. The exposition ends with a climax in B major at bars 79-84; the development then begins in A♭ major, rather puckishly recalling the A♭ major tonality of the introduction, and proceeds through modulating sequences: B♭ minor, C minor, A minor and finally E major. The abbreviated recapitulation begins at bar 139, the parallel-triad first theme now combined with the jazz bass. When the climax of bar 79 is recapitulated at bar 155, it is merged with the earlier cadential harmony of bar 46: blue notes and all.
Thus Ravel’s last chamber work shows a remarkable heterogeneity of moods, from the inner-directed, even exploratory sound quality of the first movement, not quite like any other work of his, to the experimental and sometimes stark blend of jazz, dance and concertante elements that engaged his interests repeatedly in the 1920s and up to the end of his career. The Chansons madécasses (1925-26) may also be reckoned with the two sonatas as a chamber work that particularly favours the long melodic line in its instrumental as well as vocal function, and where instrumental colour, though still transparent and masterful, is less striking than the expanded harmonic language. All these stylistic features emphasise Ravel’s development away from the lush art nouveau ‘impressionism’ of his pre-war works that—excepting the special case of Bolero—are still his most famous achievements.
If you are violin, Marietta, am I piano? Is it to be I the hammer and you the bow? No, it cannot be so, for they say the two are fundamentally incompatible instruments, irreconcilable. But let us find out! Listen! A dance-like motif, borne now by the piano, now by the violin, weaves in and out of melodic figures.
For breakfast, do you make do
With coffee and toast,
Or indulge in a smorgasbord of,
Say, yogurt, fruit and cereal?
If the former, you are piano: It has no variations in timbre.
Leaving for work, is your goodbye
A predictable peck on the cheek,
Or do you surprise your lover
With a new kiss every morning?
If the latter, you are violin: It can produce vibrato.
Are you comfortable packing an instant
With observation, calculation and conversation,
Or are you more at ease
Engaging your mind in one task at a time?
If the former, you are piano:
It can juggle several voices while thinking of each independently.
Marietta, what kind of music would we make together? Could we accord violin and piano, deal with dissonance, create harmony? Listen! Motion and intensity are dying down, the melody is fragmenting: The piano and violin have nothing to do with each other now. With one breath, as it were, your bow, though moving up and down, sustains one long, dying tone over the piano’s softly repeating figure. The end is the beginning. Or is it the other way around?
II. Blues: Moderato
This is the blues? Yes, the mood is there in the melody; your mournful slides sound like saxophone slurs, and Matteo is playing with subtle syncopation. Oh my little Paganini, when you lay down your violin, how I’d love to kiss your collarbone!
Marietta, can you hear me?
I am here, in the eye of the storm.
Listen, there’s something I need to know.
If, when your breast heaves gently in your sleep
And the intricate elaborations of the day unravel,
A wandering albatross were to fly into your dreams and say,
‘Throw your arms around me; I’ll show you the Southern Ocean,
The frozen world from which I come’,
Would you, as you looked into his eyes, recognize me?
And if you did climb onto his back
And throw your arms around his neck,
Would you take fright,
As you glide on the updrafts of wind over waves,
At the steep drop in temperature?
Would you then wake up with relief
To the warmth of your familiar world,
Or would you hold on even tighter to his pliant body,
Trusting the warmth of his heart to heat you
As you head into Antarctica?
Hark! A cadence, an expansive chord, sustained by your relentless bow. A final flourish, then horsehair leaves catgut and in an arc swoops up: The perpetuum mobile is no more, the sonata is over.
Smiling a mischievous smile, Matteo joins you downstage. Together you take a bow. When you stand up straight he is radiant; you’re wearing a strange grin, as if embarrassed by the applause, as if it has nothing to do with you.
Again you take a bow, then with quiet dignity Matteo accepts the acclaim while your restless eyes tell the audience that it cannot touch you. You’ve had enough! On your heels you turn, and lead Matteo backstage. The house lights go up.