Skip to page content

FastNotes

  • Ravel was 27 when he commenced work on the Quartet in F in late 1902, under the influence of Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, with its fascinating tone colors and cyclical use of opening thematic material, recurring in subsequent movements.

  • The Quartet in F proved to be Ravel’s first major success as a composer, although his submission of the work for a composition prize led to his expulsion (a second time) from the Paris Conservatory. Nonetheless, the public eagerly embraced the Quartet.

  • The opening Allegro cloaks its sonata form in lush lyricism. The virtuosic movement that follows reflects the contemporary fascination in Paris for things Far Eastern, as well as Ravel’s own attraction to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov.

  • Themes from the first movement subtly insinuate themselves into the rhapsodic pathways of the moody slow movement. This unifying thread of recycled themes continues into the brilliant finale.


In his youth, Ravel showed great promise as both pianist and composer. While still a student, however, he decided against a career as a concert virtuoso and opted to devote his life to composing. Predictably, his first works to gain wide popularity were for piano. Pavane for a Dead Princess was commissioned in 1899 for Princess de Polignac’s elegant soirées, while the remarkably fresh Jeux d’eau made a splash in radical circles two years later.

Ravel was 27 when he commenced work on the Quartet in F in late 1902. Although the dedication reads: “To my dear teacher, Gabriel Fauré,” it is Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor that influenced Ravel, with its fascinating tone colors and cyclical use of opening thematic material, recurring in subsequent movements.

Despite a rough start, the Quartet in F proved to be Ravel’s first major success as a composer. When he submitted the initial movement for a composition prize at the Paris Conservatory, jury members thought the piece a bit too close to the modernist camp for comfort, and Ravel found himself expelled from that esteemed institution for a second time. Nonetheless, the public eagerly embraced the Quartet.

Critics, however, were sharply divided at the 1904 Paris premiere. When a few suggested extensive revisions, Debussy admonished the young composer, “In the name of the gods of music, and in mine, do not change a single note of what you have written.”

For all its youthful ardor, the Quartet displays astonishing technical maturity. Ravel’s imaginative and expert handling of string resources and sounds foretells of dazzling future orchestrations. The opening Allegro cloaks its sonata form in lush lyricism. In the virtuosic movement that follows, biting pizzicatos, bewitching modality, and perfumed exoticism reflect the contemporary fascination in Paris for things Far Eastern, as well as Ravel’s own attraction to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. Themes from the first movement subtly insinuate themselves into the rhapsodic pathways of the moody slow movement. This unifying thread of recycled themes continues into the brilliant finale, as driving tremolos in quintuple meter (5/8) alternate with ¾-time reminiscences of the Quartet’s opening moments.  

– Kathy Henkel