About this Piece
Ravel began work in 1923 on a sonata for violin and piano, and found himself intrigued, not by the union, but by the independence of the instrumental parts. Ravel explained his reason for writing for the instruments as he did by describing the piano and violin of his Sonata as “essentially incompatible instruments, which not only do not sink their differences, but accentuate incompatibility to an even greater degree.” Always the intellectual and the consummate craftsman, Ravel proved his argument with a work in which the two instruments are separate but equal, reacting to each other dispassionately, yet each maintaining its distinct identity. Stylistically, Ravel seems to be caught somewhere between at least three worlds: the quaint and lovely, slightly modal, slightly oriental world of Ma mère l'oye; the bluesy, jazzy one of his fairy tale opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (and of the two piano concertos to come); and the neoclassic, hovering-on-atonal world of the 1920s.
The first movement begins with the piano presenting a flowing, single-note melody having a distinctive quick step that interrupts the even motion. The violin takes up the idea while the piano falls into a repeated broken octave pattern in the treble which is presently joined by an impudent little figure in the bass destined to make many appearances throughout the movement, and a reappearance at the beginning of the third movement. The music unfolds with remarkable textural economy; for example, in one section the piano accompanies an expressive violin melody with only an extended series of archaic two-note figures (simultaneously sounded notes a fifth apart).
The second movement, titled Blues, is a slightly self-conscious nod to the American idiom Ravel greatly admired. Syncopations, honky-tonk rhythmic patterns, flatted thirds and sevenths, violin slides, and an allusion to the dialogue between the Teapot and the Cup in L’Enfant et les sortilèges are some of its elements.
Starting with a remembrance of the first movement's cheeky figure, the finale finds the violin taking off, locomotive style, on a perpetual motion of dizzying virtuosic activity, while the piano works its jaunty rhythmic way through a variety of material, including some echoes from the earlier movements. The design is highly original, the effect riveting, hypnotic.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.