Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Ravel - Piano Trio In A Minor

 Maurice Ravel was a different breed of man and musician. He was a free thinker, a trait that was probably inherited from his mother who was not French, but Basque. His mother was raised in Spain, while his father was an engineer born near the French-Swiss border. Ravel was born in a Basque town, and shortly after his birth his family moved to paris. 

Ravel was a talented student, but not a prodigy. He was actually expelled from the Paris Conservatoire twice as he was a student that could only learn under his terms and not under reactionary methods of the school. But he continued to learn and grow in maturity, talent, and craft. 

Ravel's trio was begun in 1914, but he had planned to write eone for a long time before that. He had already written some of the pieces he is known for, such as the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, in versions for piano and orchestra, Pavane pour une infante défunte, also in version for piano and orchestra, as well as other works. 

Ravel was a master of orchestration, so he well understood that piano tone and string tone can be a problem to balance out. He mastered the problem splendidly in the piano trio, and went beyond the more traditional chamber music quality and made the three instruments blossom together orchestrally.    

I. Modéré -  The work begins with a theme stated by the piano, a theme that was inspired by the Basque songs and dances he heard his mother sing when he was a child. It follows the metrical outline of a Basque dance form, the zortziko. The theme has the unusual time signature of 8/8, which breaks down into the repeating pattern of beats 3+2+3 in the right hand with dotted rhythms while the left hand plays in steady quarter notes and rest and eighth notes. This gives a syncopated, just slightly off-kilter feeling to the theme. 
The theme repeats with the violin and cello playing high in their range, two octaves apart. The theme is repeated and the instruments develop the theme while the piano plays a rhapsodic accompaniment. The movement is in sonata form, but Ravel's veneration of the old forms did not deter him from using them in his own way. The second theme is in A minor in a different mood than the first theme. The development has the persistence of the rhythm of the opening theme playing under the second theme, and the themes weave in and out. Despite sounding so ethereal sometimes, the printed page sees Ravel use tremolo and harmonics in the strings and use of the deep bass notes of the piano. It all comes full circle, but the music fits so well together that the return for the recapitulation is not easy to detect in the orchestral fog of the three instruments. A coda brings the first movement to gentle close in the key of C major.

II. Pantoum. Assez vif - A pantoum is a type of poetic form used by French poets that was taken from Malaysian poetry. An oversimplification of it consists of a poem that consists of four line stanzas with specific rhyming schemes between alternating lines. The form was also used by some American poets. Ravel never explained his use of the term, but Debussy set to music a poem by Charles Baudelaire in the form of a pantoum. Perhaps it refers to how Ravel used alternating lines of music in imitation of the poem. Ravel's tempo indication means 'rather fast', and this movement serves as a scherzo in 3/4 meter.
The Strings pizzicato accompany the pianoasthe movement opens. The strings very their playing mode between bowed notes, pizzicato, left-handed pizzicato, and harmonics. The scherzo is followed by a short trio in F major. In the trio, the strings continue to play in 3/4 time, the piano changes its meter to 4/2. When the scherzo returns, it's 3/4 time for all as the music scurries to the end of the movement.

 III. Passacaille. Très large - The passacaglia is an old dance form from Spain that usually is based on an ostinato that opens the work written in triple meter. It is usually quite slow and serious in nature. Ravel's tempo indication in the score is quarter beat = 40, and that is indeed quite slow. The piano opens the movement with the ostinato theme in F-sharp minor that is derived from the first theme heard in the pantoum movement, and each instrument repeats it verbatim while the others comment. The theme is always present throughout the movement in one form or another, and the variations build in complexity, so much so that the piano is written in 3 staves. After a climax is reached, the music slowly goes back as before, and ends up with the piano having final word.

IV. Final. Animé - The last movement begins with the string instruments shimmering; the violin with arpeggios in harmonics, and the cello in double stopped tremolos at the top of its range:
The time signature is in 5/4, and changes to 7/4 off and on through the movement. The complexities and sonorities of the previous movements come to a pinnacle in the finale. Trills, tremolos, wide spaced arpeggios and upper extremes are exploited and lead to a piano trio sounding very orchestral.