Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major




From Mark DeVoto, ‘Harmony in Ravel’s chamber music’, in The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, ed. Deborah Mawer (CUP, 2000), pp. 113-117

Achille Ouvré, Maurice Ravel, 1909

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.

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The sonata form of the first movement is elusive and very free. The opening theme in the piano is six bars long, but only the first two bars of it (in a lydian-inflected G major) reappear regularly for development. Other motives appear in quick succession: a bitonal ‘chirp’ at bars 10-11; a whole-tone succession of parallel major triads at bar 12; and a major/minor motive at bars 34-35, arpeggiating an inverted ninth chord. A loosely defined second-theme region begins at bar 47 with vibraphone-like diminished octaves; when these become diatonic (major) sevenths at bar 51, one is aware that in an earlier work Ravel might have written a similar melody harmonised in parallel seventh chords rather than the bare intervals favoured here in the piano part.

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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.

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This question is tentatively answered at bar 96 as the G major (lydian-inflected) first theme returns in the piano, but over an E♭-B♭ drone, a remnant of the recent organum-like theme. The violin holds onto its F♯-E, and then the development begins in earnest. New short motives arise out of fragments of the first theme, but all the earlier motives receive attention through a variety of keys. The climax of the development is approached through Ravel’s favourite supertonic ninth chord, incorporating both a strong root function and the ambiguity of subdominant and submediant within its span (compare, for instance, the climax or both the ‘Prelude’ and the last page of the ‘Menuet’ in Le Tombeau de Couperin. It resolves deceptively, however, to an E♭ major/minor chord (G♭ notated enharmonically as F♯) with G forming the melodic climax.

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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.

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Nor does the recapitulation proceed as the same ordered succession of events first heard in the exposition. After the first theme, various motives reappear in the piano, but the pedal-point passages and harmonic ostinatos are omitted and a much more regular bass sustains the texture, while the violin moves more slowly—in 3/4 metre against the piano’s 9/8–in an entirely new melodic line. The motivic substance of the piano is increasingly dominated by the first six or seven notes of the first theme. The climax of the recapitulation, at bars 201-03, is satisfying in its melodic continuity and as a V-I cadence, but we are left wondering what has been recapitulated. The coda that follows provides some answers: the organum theme in parallel fifths, at bars 88-89, supports the violin’s oscillating F♯-E, which becomes F♯-G at bars 223-25.

Lisa-Batiashvili | Ugo-Ponte

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.

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Much of the violin part consists of pizzicato chords, becoming more intense as the movement progresses. The prolonged back and-forth strumming across the four strings that worked so well in the string ensemble within L’Enfant as well as in Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Debussy’s Ibéria is of less resonant effect in a solo instrument, with disconcerting reminders of a ukulele, but it is well relieved by the feline glissandos in the violin cantilena (which Ravel marks ‘nostalgico’).

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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).

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A likely apocryphal story has Ravel remarking that he was inspired to compose Bolero after having spent a summer in the neighbourhood of a sawmill. Few composers who dared to experiment with extreme mechanicity in their music were able to bring it off as successfully. (After a performance of Bolero many of the soloists get to take a bow, but it is the relentlessly constrained snare drummer who probably deserves it most.) In the mechanised ‘Perpetuum mobile’ of the Sonata, Ravel keeps the violinist playing relentlessly across bars 15-194; the part ranges far and wide with a variety of bowing styles, but shows a marked preference for repeated notes on the G string. Certainly, it is the violin that sustains the energy of the movement, but it is the piano that provides the structure as a modified sonata form.

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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.

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The tonality of the ‘Perpetuum mobile’ reveals both its unity and its continuity with the movements that preceded. The opening fourteen bars are an introduction, nominally in A♭ major as a structural hold-over from the ‘Blues’ (just as its opening chord was held over from the first movement). When the violin’s moto perpetuo gets under way in G major, the accompanying harmony (rooted on G) includes elements of the F♯ major triad as an appoggiaturas. Thus we have once more the motivic/harmonic relationship that was so prominently displayed earlier, and that will be featured again repeatedly in this movement, indeed forming the complete cadential harmony of the last eight bars. (Nor is this the end of it; Ravel’s fondness for this sonority, based in G major, appears again in full strength in the finale of the Concerto in G.)

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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.

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Part One Chapter 3

Janine Jansen | Marco Borggreve, Decca

I. Allegretto

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.

Anne-Sophie Mutter & Lambert Orkis | Tom Specht, DG 1998

Do you sleep
All curled up and fetal,
Or on your stomach
In freefall?

If the former, you are violin: It is an instrument of curves.

Upon awaking, do you linger
With the phantoms of sleep,
Or banish them to darkness
And bounce straight out of bed?

If the latter, you are piano: It is percussive.

In the shower
Do you let your thoughts run,
Or do you file each one away
Before moving on?

If the former, you are violin:
It can slide from one note to another without disrupting the pitch continuum.

Lisa Batiashvili

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.

Hélène Grimaud | DG 2010

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?

Anne-Sophie Mutter | Lillian Birnbaum, DG 2002

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!

Lisa Batiashvili | Monika Ritterhaus

III. Perpetuum mobile: Allegro

Out of your violin you wrench a tirade of fractured tones, unremitting in intensity. Matteo cuts into your smoking fulminations with dry, percussive chords; refusing to be interrupted, your wrist, your arm, your elbow measure out the bow with precise distillations of violence. Whence this strange fascination, this uncanny jubilation? How can you move with such unerring poise when such a demonic pulse bangs in your blood? What obsession, what idée fixe, feeds this blazing fire? Mesmerized by your shivering bow, I lose my earthly references: Your perpetuum mobile hypnotizes me.

Janine Jansen | Rouven Steinke

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?

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And if, as the wind whips the sea into a frenzy,
He were to say to you, ‘I am tired of being a stranger’,
Would you panic and wake up in a cold sweat?
And if he added, as you make for the midnight sun,
‘I may be feral and hollowed out by homelessness
But between your legs I would find a plenitude of being’,
Would you let him lie there and become human?

For if he can soar for hours without a wingbeat,
Spend most of his life without touching land,
He’d rather be a man, not an albatross.

So would you smear his breast with your blood,
Anoint his eyelids with your spittle
And burnish his wings with your cunt’s secretions?
Would you squat and piss before him,
Whip him with your hair,
And dry your fevered brow in his effulgent feathers?
And when winter brings a transparent trickle to your nostrils,
Would you scatter drops of that warm drip into his silky down?

As his shadow glides over the ice and snow,
As your breast rises and falls on your breathing,
That is what I want to know.

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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.

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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.

Janine Jansen | Photo: Marco Borggreve | Marta Czubak, Unsplash

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.

Mason & Hamlin Pianos | Providence Doucet, Unsplash


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Ravel I

Ravel II





Mara Marietta