We’re returning to our series on the music of French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel. The piece you will hear is Ravel’s String Quartet in F.
While studying music in New York City in the summer of 2012, I performed this quartet with three other students, all of whom had travelled from China. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to perform it in the penthouse of the Lincoln Center in downtown NYC, with the floor-to-ceiling windows giving us a view of the sparkling city spreading out beneath us as we serenaded the audience with the breathtaking opening movement. Every time I hear this piece, I picture that moment. It felt like we floating over the city on Ravel’s melodies.
Ravel wrote the string quartet in the 1920’s in an attempt to imitate the colors created by Debussy’s fantastic G Minor string quartet. (I highly recommend that you also listen to the Emerson Quartet’s phenomenal recording of the the Debussy). Immediately after the quartet’s premiere, the audience (and soon the entire world) fell in love with Ravel’s music and heralded him as the greatest composer of the 20th century. However, the world-famous Paris Conservatory, where he was a student at the time, was not pleased with such a proclamation. The harmonic and stylistic liberties that Ravel had taken in his string quartet proved to be too much for that archaic fortress of Romanticism, and the Conservatory faculty promptly expelled Ravel. He happily departed and proceeded to garner worldwide fame as a ground-breaking composer, much to the chagrin of his former professors. (Legend has it that even the great Debussy, Ravel’s mentor and idol, was so enamored with the string quartet that he wrote to Ravel specifically to tell him not to change a single note of what he had written because it was already perfect).
The first movement is one of the most iconic and beautiful melodies in the entire chamber music repertoire. It is impossible to miss and just as impossible to forget. It is at once exquisitely Parisian and modestly homey. The Hagen Quartet (the ensemble in the video above) does a masterful job of accenting all of the delightful nuances of the movement. The second movement reflects Ravel’s fascination with all things “Far Eastern,” as it contrasts the first movement with sporadic pizzicato passages and almost hysterically rushed virtuosity. The third movement is the reflective movement, and it recapitulates the melodies introduced in the first movement to give us a reminiscent, almost nostalgic experience. The fourth movement incorporates all the themes introduced thus far into a majestic yet pensive finale.
For not being a string musician, Ravel displays a remarkable depth of understanding of the possibilities offered by the violin, viola, and cello. He knows just which melodies, lines, runs, and techniques work best on which instrument. For instance, when a melancholy melody comes along in the third movement, he uses the viola’s sombre tones to display it. When a lyrical theme sweeps through the first movement, he uses a dialogue between the two violins in order to capitalize on their lighter tones. During the second movement’s deep and powerful currents, the cello is used to give the music density and urgency. Listen for the ways that Ravel uses the techniques and characteristics of each instrument to create different styles and textures of sound.
P.S. The link above is only for the first movement. To listen to the other movements, just click on the subsequent videos in the menu/sidebar to the right of the screen.
P.P.S. Don’t forget to check out our playlist on Spotify! It’s under the name “Music Email Playlist” and contains over 14 hours of music – every piece that’s ever been sent out!