Sonata (Duo) for Violin and Cello
March 13, 2022: Kristin Lee, violin; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Michael Brown, piano
In 1920 Henry Prunières, editor of La Revue Musicale, commissioned pieces by ten prominent composers—Bartók, Dukas, Falla, Eugene Goossens, Malipiero, Ravel, Roussel, Satie, Schmitt, and Stravinsky—to be published in a special issue commemorating Debussy and to be played on a special recital at the Société Musicale Indépendante on January 24, 1921. Ravel’s contribution was the first movement of his Duo for violin and cello. Owing to work on a concurrent commission for the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges and numerous other distractions—including moving into a country villa where he could compose undisturbed—Ravel did not resume work on the Sonata until the summer of 1921, completing it in January 1922.
At the time of the premiere on April 6, 1922, by violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and cellist Maurice Maréchal, the work was still titled Duo, perhaps reflecting Kodály’s 1914 work of the same title for the same combination of instruments. Indeed the Hungarian flavor of parts of the finale may indicate more than titular influence. Ravel noted the Sonata (its published title)—as a “turning point” in his career from the lushness of previous works to a more “stripped down” style. The work shows a “restraint from harmonic charm,” wrote the composer, and is “more and more an emphatic reversion to the spirit of melody.” Unintended dissonances marred the first performance—consequences of Ravel’s novel ideas, which proved technically challenging. Naturally some critics complained about the austerity of the new style, but Gustave Samazeuilh wrote of the “supple imagination of the first movement, “the surprising verve” of the second and fourth movements, and the “pure and sustained line” of the slow movement.
Ravel met the challenge of composing for reduced forces not only through a new melodic style, but through an incredible variety of textures, articulations, and timbres. In the sonata-form first movement he keeps both instruments in the same register much of the time, thus focusing not on their differences but their pitch content, which shifts between major and minor. By contrast, the scherzo showcases the different ranges of the two instruments and, even more striking, the difference between pizzicato (plucked) and arco (bowed) articulations. A wonderful texture is created by broken chords in harmonics that accompany the violin’s folklike pizzicato theme, which later returns arco with a new accompaniment. Another novel sonority occurs at the conclusion with the cello’s pizzicato, triple-stop glissando (slide).
The slow movement begins and ends in calm introspection, rising to a turbulent peak in the middle. Its simple lyricism provides a great foil for the preceding scherzo and the following finale, which by turns can be characterized as agitated, playful, and driven. In this concluding movement Ravel delights in changing meters, Hungarian folk touches, and further pizzicato and arco contrasts as he artfully creates new themes and combines them with ideas that we’ve heard before, including prominent recalls from the first movement. The great swirl of themes, keys, and textures suddenly comes to a halt in a simple C major chord.
© Jane Vial Jaffe