“Complex, but not complicated” was a self-professed compositional creed of the great Maurice Ravel. The names Ravel and Debussy are usually spoken in the same breath, much like “cookies and milk”, “cake and ice cream”, or even “steak and baked potato”. The two great French musicians are most often given as the quintessential examples of “Impressionist” composers. I actually think that it makes more sense to think of Ravel as a classist. What I mean is, that Maurice looked back to the “Classical” era of music history and took many of his notions of what music should be from Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven and the like. The musical aesthetic values of clarity, balance and melody from the Classical period are also present in much of Ravel’s compositional output. His music is well-crafted, and complex, but not muddled or overly complicated.
Ravel was an absolute genius of musical orchestration, that art of using combinations of instruments and their specific tone colors for musical expression. In music school, the orchestration class is where one learns about all of the instruments of the orchestra and their ranges, and how to effectively write for combinations of instruments. I think the musical examples of brilliant orchestration in my course were 50% Tchaikovsky’s, 50% Maurice Ravel’s and 50% other composers. (It was a big course.) The exceptional skill with which Ravel handled the large orchestral ensemble is also apparent in some of his chamber music, which I hope to show later in this post.
When I get the chance to listen to music live, sometimes I study up on the pieces that are on the program, to try to get the most out of the experience. Other times, I just go in cold, with only the vaguest idea of what I am about to hear. I might know the composer, or the performers, but not the specific piece I am about to listen to. That latter situation was the case when I first heard Ravel’s Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle. It was in one of the concerts of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, a summertime treat here in Detroit that puts on concerts in a variety of the large churches around town. I love the intimacy of chamber music, those compositions for a small group of players. Composers often use the symphony for their big public ideas, and work out even deeper private thoughts in the small group setting of a chamber ensemble.
Ravel’s piece is written for a Piano Trio, a specific chamber group made up (as you can guess from the title) of a piano, violin and cello. The title of the work has been mangled through the early publications and some recordings. It is revealing that Ravel had put the instruments in that specific order (piano, violon et violoncelle), because in doing so, he is giving a nod to the long established tradition of trio writing as found in Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and even Mendelssohn and Brahms. Maurice was looking toward his piece being accepted into the repertoire of established (“classical”) performing chamber groups.
The classicism of this work is also evident in the arrangement of the four movements into a classical “sonata cycle”. The first movement is a sonata form movement. The middle two movements are a dance-like Scherzo and Trio form and a slow movement. In the case of Ravel’s trio, the Scherzo comes in the second movement and the slow movement is third, but that is not always the order in a “sonata cycle”. The finale here is another fast movement in sonata form (although it could have been a rondo form, theme and variations form, or something else and still fit into the “cycle”). Now if this paragraph is starting to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher (a nasal wah-wah, wah-wah-wah), you can skip it and still enjoy the piece. The main point is that Ravel is borrowing a practice that was established back in the time of Haydn and Mozart. I could go on for hundreds of pages about these forms and concepts, but that would never get read. However, if you are beginning to like Western classical art music, these forms would be useful things with which to become familiar. Much of the music still performed today either plays into these concepts, or is playing against the expectations that these concepts lay out.
The first movement is marked Modéré, and is in a sonata form with some creative personalization by Ravel. One of the things that makes it sound modern, and not like warmed-over Mozart, is the use of uneven rhythms. The beats of the measure are grouped into a Basque dance rhythm of 3+2+3. Ravel was born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France and his mother was an ethnic Basque who grew up in Madrid. He comes by this Basque dance flavor of a zortziko very authentically.
The second movement is a scherzo and trio (A-B-A) form that is marked Pantoum (Assez vif). A Pantoum is a specific verse form in poetry, with four line stanzas (quatrains) containing repeating interwoven lines. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. For Ravel to make reference to this poetic form in the expected musical form of the scherzo, is announcing that there is great craftsmanship and complexity at work in this movement of the piece. Indeed the musical ideas are interwoven and developed much like the poetic form.
The third movement is a passacaglia (Passacaille (Très large)). This serves as the slow movement, and is built on repeating the opening eight bar bass line of the piano. You can hear the bass line repeat, and it is always present, as the music above it builds and changes. This type of form is sometimes called a Chaconne, and in modern times the two terms mean just about the same thing. In historical times, scholars tried to tie down the differences and define the two terms separately, but no one could agree on the definitions. So in historical times, the two terms also mean just about the same thing. Just listen to the bass, and enjoy the ingenuity happening above it.
I remember sitting in that live performance, my first hearing of this work, and being absolutely blown away by the final movement, marked Final (Animé). It is also a sonata form movement, but it is the orchestral texture that Ravel creates with only three instruments that caused my hair to stand up. Ravel pushes the limits of what each player can do, and the arpeggiations and layers of ideas leave the listener awash in sound. My ears swore the piano player had four hands, and that there was a team of violins and cellos playing. My eyes told me the truth, that there were still only three people on stage. The finale also incorporates some uneven time signatures and rhythms, which lifts the music out of the squareness of it’s classical era ancestry. I struggled to stand for the ovation at that concert, and I think I stopped on the way home to buy a recording of the piece.
A performance of the entire piece takes about 30 minutes. I think I wasted 30 minutes today hitting the snooze button on the alarm and waiting in traffic during the morning commute. I’m sure you could squeeze 30 minutes out of your day to listen to some good music. I assure you that the Ravel Piano Trio is well worth the time to hear.