Fictional Review of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano

By Isaac Drewes

On the night of May 30th, 1927, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a concert at the Salle Erard, the second concert on M. Durand’s series.[1] This was an important night for composer Maurice Ravel, representing the culmination of five years of work on his Sonata for Violin and Piano.[2] Talking to him after the concert, he told me that the work was at times frustrating for him to compose, especially the final movement, which he scrapped and started over because the first version sounded too much like the first movement.[3] All this is to say that Ravel had a large investment in the work. The performance was given by Georges Enesco on Violin, and Ravel himself at the piano. However, Ravel originally intended it for Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, who was unable to play it due to health problems.[4] Through its use of clear textures, avoidance of emotionalism, and, ironically, its use of American motifs, this work exemplifies what French art should sound like.

On the night of May 30th, there were many different events around Paris to choose from, in addition to M. Durand’s concert at the Salle Erard. At the Salle Gaveau, Jose Iturbi performed Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes; at L’Opera-Comique, a production of Madama Butterfly; at L’Opera, the Magic Flute,[5] and at the Ambassadeurs, a review entitled “Broadway to Paris.”[6] The reason I chose to attend the concert with Ravel’s sonata was because I wanted something distinctly French, not Hungarian, Austrian, or American. Milhaud writes that French music is an effort to express one’s self in “clearness, simplicity, and consciousness.”[7] I have observed these traits in Ravel’s music in the past. This is best exemplified in his Tombeau de Couperin, which is formally succinct and harmonically sound, borrowing from French classical forms to create a modern, French art. While his Sonata for Violin and Piano is a much later and arguably more adventurous work, it displays some of these same traits of musical Frenchness.

Ravel was very deliberate in his choice to write for violin and piano, instruments which he considered to be two “naturally incompatible” instruments.[8] In his sonata, he sought to emphasize, rather than eschew this incompatibility.[9] To underscore this, he creates conflict in the music by writing passages in which the piano and violin have contrasting tonalities, especially in the openings of the first and second movements. By writing for two aesthetically incompatible instruments, and emphasizing their incompatibility, Ravel shifts the focus to the content of the music, rather than any sentimentality that two compatible instruments might naturally create. This is one of the ways that he makes this sonata more French.

I have already mentioned the importance of Frenchness in art to me. Ravel accomplishes this with his sparse textures, as well as an avoidance of emotionalism. In beginning the first movement with a solo piano line, he establishes that this will not be overblown in the style of Wagner, but will be more cerebral and logical. Even the blues movement is relatively emotionless, despite the extreme emotion of the blues in America. By using two dissonant tonalities, he creates a rather ominous subtext for the movement. The final movement is a Perpetuum Mobile in which the violin is constantly in motion, punctuated by the piano, creating an almost mechanistic effect.

The middle movement, “blues,” deserves special attention. Ravel was fascinated by American jazz and blues, and has been very vocal about his support for the study and usage of this art today. He once wrote in a letter: “Have you been to hear the negroes? Their virtuosity is at times terrifying.”[10] In his article “Take Jazz Seriously!” which appeared in Musical Digest,[11] Ravel states his assertion that jazz was bound to become the national music of the United States. He argues against the perception that jazz is cheap, vulgar, and momentary, and cites the blues movement of this sonata as an example to the contrary.

This movement uses strum-like patterns, slides, and blue notes to create the effect of blues. In this light, and considering that I chose not to attend the American musical review, it might seem ironic that I’m citing this piece, including the middle movement, as an exemplar of French national art. However, within the framework of the blues, he is still operating on a French tonal and harmonic spectrum. It is similar to the way in which a French composer might write in the style of a Viennese waltz,[12] as Ravel has done in his ballet score, written for Serge Diaghilev, La Valse.[13] In this way, Ravel is putting French art in an international context, making Frenchness accessible to an international, in this case, American, audience.

This did not come without its controversy, however. Enesco disliked the middle movement, and therefore refused to stay with the rest of us for a drink after the concert, as is the custom. In a Vienna performance, some of the Nazis in the audience, upon hearing the second music, screamed “Nigger music! Phooey!”[14] Indeed, this work goes against many of the things that the Nazi party stands for. Thus, this work becomes a statement against Nazism. In his essay “The Evolution of Modern Music,”[15] Milhaud argues that music is essentially split along two separate paths: that of Germany and France; romanticism and reserve; atonality and polytonality. Since Ravel has written an essentially anti-Nazi subtext into his work, he is working to further the French side.

Great art makes a statement. It goes beyond the page itself. In the case of music, it goes beyond the notes that are written and says something applicable to the world around it. By this standard, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano measures quite highly. Whether Ravel intended this or not (and he may well have not), his work carries a strong sense of French national pride. It is decidedly anti-German, and makes allusions to sources that Germany would consider to be below art music. In this way, Ravel brings French people and traditions, as well as those of the United States, together in a unique way that emphasizes French solidarity and excellence.

[1] Maurice Brilliant,  “Les Oeuvres et les Hommes, ” Le Correspondant. No. 1555, July 10, 1927: 774. Though Myers lists this as a “public” performance (Rollo H. Myers, Ravel: Life and Works (1960): 76), there are no announcements of the concert to be found in the major newspapers. Thus, I am inferring that the performance, while public, was mostly by invitation.

[2] Benjamin Ivry, Maurice Ravel: A Life (New York, NY: Welcome Rain Publishers LLC, 2000), 141.

[3] Roger Nichols, The Master Musicians: Ravel (London: Aldine Press, 1977), 133

[4] Ivry 142

[5] Figaro : Journal Non Politique. May 30, 1924: 4.

[6] Le Gaulois : Litteraire et Politique. No 18134, May 30, 1927: 4.

[7] Darius Milhaud, “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vienna,” The North American Review 217, no. 809 (April 1923), 546.

[8] Nichols 131

[9] Rollo H. Myers, Ravel: Life and Works (1960): 75

[10] Nichols 133

[11] Maurice Ravel, “Take Jazz Seriously!” Musical Digest (March 1928, 13(3):49 and 51. Reprinted: Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990): 390

[12] Gerald Larner, Maurice Ravel (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996): 195

[13] Larner 169

[14] Ivry 142. In reality, for this fictional reviewer to have known about this concert would have been anachronistic.

[15] Milhaud 546