String Quartet in F
November 14, 2021 – Schumann String Quartet
Incredible as it seems, Ravel’s efforts as a student at the Paris Conservatory and his attempts to win the prestigious Prix de Rome met with repeated rejection. His first dismissal from the Conservatory came in 1895 after he failed to win any piano prizes. He was dismissed again in 1900 when prizes in composition and fugue also eluded him. He nevertheless credited his teachers—Fauré in composition and Gédalge in composition—as major influences. He stayed on at the Conservatory as an auditor in Fauré’s class until 1903.
Just as Ravel’s flouting of conservative counterpoint and harmony rules dogged his success at the Conservatory, it kept him from earning the Prix de Rome five times between 1900 and 1905. These utterly painful snubbings became known as the first “Affaire Ravel,” which ultimately led to the uncovering of a judging scandal and the replacement of the director of the Conservatory with the more tolerant Fauré. Against this backdrop of academic failure, however, Ravel was winning considerable public and critical support for his already mature-sounding compositions.
Ravel’s only String Quartet, now one of the most beloved pieces in the chamber music repertoire, was the product of his last year of study with Fauré, to whom he dedicated it with affection. The Quartet’s glorious first movement was the submission that failed to win its composer the 1903 Prix. The first performance of the Quartet took place at the Société Nationale de Musique—a prestigious place indeed for a “failure”—on March 5, 1904, by the Heymann Quartet. The critics hotly contested the merits of the work, some considering it too derivative of Debussy and others boldly recognizing Ravel as one of the masters of the future.
Obvious parallels exist between Debussy’s and Ravel’s Quartets—such as the shadowy accompanimental sixteenth-note figures in the first movement and the pizzicatos in the scherzo—but Ravel’s clarity of structure, innovative textures, and thematic transformations within and between movements bespeak his uniqueness. Despite a professional rivalry that became ugly in the press, Debussy is said to have written his younger colleague encouraging him to stand firm with exactly what he had composed.
The warm pastoral theme of Ravel’s opening and a vigorous climax provide a wonderful foil for the soaring, haunting second theme played by the violin and viola paralleling one another two octaves apart. The composer drapes his inspired textures and colors over a transparent sonata framework. This form features some harmonic sleight of hand—when the haunting theme returns in the recapitulation, Ravel uses exactly the same notes in the upper three parts, but manages a change to the home key simply by raising the cello line.
Like Debussy, Ravel places his Scherzo second. The younger composer uses contrasting meters between the outer and inner pairs of instruments, culminating in an insistent trill that blossoms into a plaintive melody over busy texture. The central trio slows to a moody, atmospheric meandering before the rhythmic pizzicato of the scherzo resumes.
Ravel’s slow movement begins in the declamatory vein of a storyteller, whose muted narrative unfolds with alternating tension and serenity, periodically alluding to first-movement themes. A string of ingenious textures and ideas captivates the ear—delicate trills arising out of a gruff cello recitative, poignant melodies with rocking accompaniment or underlaid with rapid string crossings, and an exquisite peak followed by a nostalgic ebbing.
The vigorous finale with its irregular 5/8 meter and juxtaposition of lyricism and insistent outbursts struck Fauré as “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” Time, however, has overruled his objections—the movement’s unsettled nature, its expressive transformations of first-movement material, and its whirlwind virtuosity are now deemed the perfect conclusion to a masterpiece.
© Jane Vial Jaffe