Skip to page content

Ravel began work in 1923 on a sonata for vi- olin 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 in- struments, which not only do not sink their differences, but accentuate incompatibility to an even greater degree.” (Which may explain why he did not finish it until 1927.) 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.

The first movement begins with the piano presenting a flowing 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 joined by an impudent little figure in the bass destined to make many appear- ances throughout the movement, and a reappearance at the beginning of the third movement. The music unfolds with remarkable textural economy; for ex- ample, in one section the piano accompa- nies 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. Synco- pations, honky-tonk rhythmic patterns, flatted thirds and sevenths, violin slides, and an allusion to the dialog between the Teapot and the Cup in his opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges are some of the elements that make up the Blues.

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 and hypnotic.

— Orrin Howard