Movement 1: Modéré
Movement 2: Pantoum: Assez vif
Movement 3: Passacaille: Très large
Movement 4: Final: Animé
He had already been toying with the idea of writing a piano trio for some eight years and is even reported to have said to his friend and pupil Maurice Delage: ‘I’ve written my trio. Now all I need are the themes.’ But in an autobiographical note he dictated in 1928 his only comment on the completed work was that it was ‘Basque in colouring’. This puzzled commentators until, some years after his death, the opening theme of the first movement was discovered among sketches for his unfinished work for piano and orchestra Zaspiak Bat (‘The Seven Provinces’), based on Basque themes. The reason he later gave for this work remaining uncompleted was the ‘irreducibility’ of the Basque material—recalling Constant Lambert’s remark that you can’t do anything with a folk tune except play it again, more loudly. This obstinacy on the part of the material may have helped focus Ravel’s attention even more clearly than usual on formal elements, doing something to explain why these are particularly prominent in the work.
The first movement is in sonata form, but inevitably Ravel introduces his own modifications, as with the second theme which appears unconventionally in the tonic A minor (conventionally so in the reprise, but over altered harmonies). In the development, Ravel builds up tension by means of continually fluctuating tempi (such as had made parts of Daphnis so hard to dance convincingly), while at the reprise the first theme on the piano is reduced to its 3+2+3 rhythm in order to accommodate the simultaneous presentation of the second theme on the strings (it may be worth recording that Ravel spoke admiringly of the reprise in the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, likewise disguised, in that case by the continuation of the soloist’s cadenza). In the matter of instrumental balance, Ravel frequently doubles violin and cello at a distance of two octaves and places the right hand of the piano between them.
‘Pantoum’, the title of the second movement, is taken from a Malay verse form, imitated by Hugo, Gautier and Baudelaire among others, in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the next. For years it was rather casually assumed that in adopting this title Ravel had merely given in to vague exotic inclinations. One should have known that nothing about Ravel’s composing was ever vague, and in 1975 the British scholar Brian Newbould proved that Ravel does in fact adhere closely to the structure outlined above and, what is more, observes a further requirement of the original form, that the poem (or movement) deal with two separate ideas pursued in parallel—in this case, the brittle opening theme on the piano and the subsequent smoother one on strings two octaves apart. Each of these themes thus has a real continuation (which we hear in performance) and a notional one (which is unheard but satisfies the composer’s amour propre). It is, incidentally, crucial that the second theme be played at the same speed as the first and not slower, as on one well-known recording from the 1980s.
These exigencies would be enough to keep most composers occupied, but Ravel goes one step further and superimposes these games on a traditional ABA form, whose middle section is in a different metre! It could be that he was trying to outdo Debussy, who had set Baudelaire’s pantoum ‘Harmonie du soir’ in 1889. But at any rate this extraordinarily intricate structure lends some credence to his remark about only needing the themes.
In contrast with the whirling motion of the ‘Pantoum’, the ‘Passacaille’ that follows is obsessively linear—eleven statements of an eight-bar phrase, rising to a climax and then receding again. Even more than the ‘Pantoum’, perhaps, this movement is a tribute to the teaching of André Gédalge, the work’s dedicatee, to whom Ravel was ever grateful for his technical advice. In the last movement, the alternation of 5/4 and 7/4 bars returns us to the metric instability of the first movement, but the structure is even more firmly that of sonata form with a second theme in the shape of massive piano chords. Ravel’s work on this movement coincided with the declaration of war in August, which may possibly explain the trumpet calls in the development. Typically, he wrote off this work, in which his technical mastery is seen in all its dazzling perfection, as ‘just another Trio’.
That disclaimer was, however, to some extent for public consumption. In his heart of hearts, Ravel was passionate about compositional technique and about his role in its progress: to close friends he would occasionally unbutton to the extent of saying: ‘And then, you know, nobody had ever done that before!’ Wherever he got this passion from, it seems unlikely that it was from his teacher Fauré.
This is not to say that Fauré despised technique. But Ravel and other pupils made it clear that this was not what his Conservatoire composition classes were about. If Ravel was grateful to Gedalge on the technical front, his gratitude to Fauré lay on the artistic one. (A fellow-pupil even went to the lengths of saying that Fauré’s best teaching took place on the days when he turned up late, said to Ravel, ‘Play us your Jeux d’eau!’, and then went away again …)
from notes by Roger Nichols © 1999