Piano Trio in A minor
March 13, 2022: Kristin Lee, violin; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Michael Brown, piano
The idea of writing a piano trio had been on Ravel’s mind for several years before he actually started composing it. He went so far as to tell his friend Maurice Delage before he had even begun to write, “My Trio is finished. I only need the themes for it.” Humor aside, Ravel had undoubtedly given much thought to the architecture of the work and to the possibilities inherent in the piano, violin, and cello combination. He wrote much of the Trio in the solitude and serenity of his retreat at St. Jean-de-Luz on the Basque coast beginning in 1913, but made little progress until the following year. On March 25, 1914, he wrote to Cipa Godebski that he had completed the first movement and did not want his inspiration to grow cold. He ran into trouble, however, complaining on July 21 to Mme. Casella (whose husband Alfredo would play the piano part in the premiere) that “the Trio has not progressed for three weeks now, and I’m sick of it.”
The announcement of France’s entry into the First World War on August 2 shook Ravel tremendously. He was anxious to do his part for France, but he declared, “I want to finish my Trio before joining up.” He wrote to Delage on August 4:
If you only knew how I suffer. . . . I just keep working so as not to hear anything. Yes I am working with the persistence and concentration of a madman. But suddenly the hypocrisy of this conduct overwhelms me and I begin to sob over my note paper. When I go downstairs and my mother sees me, naturally I have to show a serene and, if possible, a smiling face. Shall I be able to keep this up? It has lasted four days already since the alarm gongs began.
Ravel kept up his frantic work pace, and by August 29 the Trio was completed. He then traveled to Bayonne, the nearest recruiting center to sign up for active duty, but was turned down because he was two kilograms underweight. He thought that his small stature might make him suitable as a fighter pilot, but this too came to nothing. He helped care for wounded soldiers in St. Jean-de-Luz, later drove for the motor transport corps, and continued to compose.
The music of the Trio in no way reveals its wartime connection. The first movement, built on a free sonata form, opens with a theme that Ravel in his autobiographical sketch called “Basque in color.” He drew its distinctive rhythm from Zaspiak Bat, a concerto on Basque themes that he never completed. The juxtaposition of this asymmetrically grouped rhythm and the four-square rhythm of the piano left-hand creates a charming effect.
The title of the second movement, “Pantoum,” refers to a form of poetry of Malaysian derivation used by Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Paul Verlaine, in which the second and fourth stanzas of a verse are repeated as the first and third stanzas of the next verse. Ravel suggested an association with the deferred repetition in the verse form by carrying material from the scherzo on into the trio section. Ravel seems to delight in the mismatched accents of the scherzo material in the strings vying with the chorale-like theme in the piano. Or, as Ravel biographer H. H. Stuckenschmidt suggests, the composer may simply have chosen the title “Pantoum” because he liked the sound and exoticism of the word!
For the third movement Ravel turned to an old musical form—the passacaglia—perhaps in honor of his old counterpoint teacher André Gédalge, to whom the Trio is dedicated. Constructed in a huge arc, the movement presents eleven statements of the eight-bar passacaglia theme that build in volume and ascend in pitch until the central climax before making an equally impressive descent.
The elaborate rondo-form finale alternates between 5/4 and 7/4 meter—another Basque connection? The opening theme immediately showcases Ravel’s imaginative trio scoring with its violin arpeggios in harmonics, double tremolos in the cello, and muted chords in the piano all creating a novel color. This opening suggests a thematic kinship with the start of the first movement by turning its contour upside down (inversion).
The Trio’s premiere took place on January 28, 1915, at a Société Musicale Indépendante concert with pianist Alfredo Casella, violinist Gabriele Willaume, and cellist Louis Feuillard. The critics responded favorably, but the Trio, now considered one of the few great twentieth-century piano trios, attracted little attention; the War no doubt delayed its fair recognition.
© Jane Vial Jaffe