Movement 1: Allegro moderato, très doux
Movement 2: Assez vif, très rythmé
Movement 3: Très lent
Movement 4: Vif et agité
The work had had its first performance a year earlier, on 5 March 1904. Whatever academic failure lay behind him, and indeed in front of him, after this performance he could no longer be written off as just another salon composer. He had ‘arrived’. And it’s worth noting that when a second edition of the score was published in 1910, he changed a few details of the texture but nothing of the substance.
In 1904 he could of course still be accused of being a Debussyste, and would be for a number of years yet. The charge, in respect of the Quartet, does carry some weight, not least because the months around its first performance mark the high-water mark of the two composers’ friendship. For a century Debussy has been quoted as begging Ravel not to change a note of the work. The truth, now vouchsafed through the publication of Debussy’s Correspondance, is rather more prosaic, if no less interesting: what Debussy in fact begged was that Ravel shouldn’t ask the players to play more quietly, as he threatened to after the final rehearsal, but should bear in mind that an audience mops up sound—though the viola could be encouraged to be a bit more discreet.
Ravel proclaims his individual take on the medium from the very start. The curiously static feel of the opening paragraph must have upset some older listeners who were accustomed to greater assertiveness at this point in a sonata movement, and for them perhaps the refreshing triplets of the second subject did not come a bar too early. But the interval of the falling fourth and the rising bass line mark the first theme as essentially Ravelian and both features help in unifying the work, as does his attraction to modal harmonies and outlines. Each of the four movements begins with the note A, linking the tonic F major to D minor and A minor; the orthodox dominant C major is hardly heard from beginning to end. The first movement is cast in traditional sonata form with a peaceful coda, but on the textural level can be seen differently: the composer Gerard McBurney has spoken of it as a game of pairs, ‘like one of those folk dances where, phrase by phrase, you swing from one partner to the next … and you never quite know whose hand you’re going to be holding in a few bars’ time.’
The scherzo thrives on the opposition between plucked and bowed sounds and, in the middle section, between steady and fluctuating tempos. If the overall conception owes something to the scherzo of Debussy’s Quartet, Ravel’s full, almost orchestral textures are his own—it seems he saw the medium objectively, uncluttered by any notion of it as the accepted repository of pure inward thoughts. The cello phrase that opens the slow middle section, later taken up by the first violin in octaves, is related to the first four notes of the first movement, but not too obviously so.
In the slow movement Ravel manages to integrate into his own language harmonies that owe something to César Franck, and from the start reappearances of the opening phrase from the first movement now proclaim his cyclic intentions more plainly. If these initially sound extraneous to the argument, by the end of the movement Ravel has succeeded in integrating them so that the reference in the final three bars has the force of a conclusive statement.
In the finale he shows total assurance in handling the asymmetry of five beats in the bar (possibly deriving from his love of Russian music) and in balancing themes against ostinato patterns. In effect he continues the rhythmic games of the second movement, replacing the 6/8–3/4 contrast with one of 5/8 (5/4)–3/4. The area of 5/8 (5/4) is characterized by the sound of fast repeated notes, while that of 3/4 carries the new versions of the two themes of the first movement. These themes are now less concerned with tension between each other than with counteracting the subversive powers of the quintuple rhythm. The coda compresses the rhythmic struggle, and triple metre wins by a whisker.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2010