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The Kennedy Center

String Quartet in F major

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Peter Laki

Ravel was 27 years old when he wrote his first and only string quartet. He was still, at least nominally, a student as he was auditing Gabriel Fauré's composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. But he had been active as composer for years, with numerous public performances behind him. He had failed, however, to win a prize from the Conservatoire, which was a condition for graduation. In particular the prestigious Prix de Rome continued to elude Ravel, who was eliminated from the contest no fewer than five times. This situation became more and more ludicrous and it finally led to a much-publicized scandal in 1905. The director of the Conservatoire had to resign, and Ravel confirmed his status as one of the leading French composers of his generation, in fact the only one whose work could be compared to that of Claude Debussy.

Ravel's string quartet-dedicated "to my dear master Gabriel Fauré"-is clearly modeled on Debussy's celebrated Quatuor from 1893, yet Ravel displays a sense of color and melody that is all his own. To both composers the string quartet as a medium suggested-in fact, demanded-adherence to classical tradition. Yet nothing was farther from them than academicism of any kind. The defining moment of both works is precisely the tension that exists between the classical forms and a positively non-classical sensitivity that is manifest at every turn.

Melody, harmony and rhythm are usually thought of as the most important ingredients of music. Ravel's string quartet, written at the beginning of the 20th century, was nothing less than prophetic in the way it added a fourth element, sound, as a factor of equal importance. The alternation of playing techniques (pizzicato, con sordino, arpeggio, bow on the fingerboard) is as crucial to the unfolding of the piece as the alternation of themes. Their succession, especially in the second and third movements, creates a musical form of its own, entirely non-traditional this time.

In the first movement, classical sonata form-a legacy that reached Ravel through the intermediary of Fauré-is realized with great clarity and ingenuity. Note the characteristic pianissimo rallentando (extremely soft and slow playing) at the end of the movement, similar to the analogous moment in Ravel's Piano Trio of 1914. (On the other hand the opening movement of Debussy's string quartet ends with a loud and fast coda.)

The second movement of Ravel's quartet is based on the contrast between two themes of opposite character: one pizzicato (plucked), and one bien chanté ("sing out!"), with bow. Again, it seems that the movement looks into the future (ahead to Ravel's Piano Trio of 1914) rather than into the past (back to the Debussy quartet). The middle section, in which all four instruments use mutes, is an expressive slow movement in miniature, with subtle variations on both scherzo themes.

The unique beauty of the third movement evolves by fits and starts, as it were, through the sometimes abrupt juxtaposition of segments in different tempos, keys, and meters. An expressive melody, whose primary exponent is the viola, is interrupted by memories of the first movement's opening theme. After a more animated middle section, culminating in a passionate outburst, the initial slow tempo returns with its exquisite harmonies.

The last movement (which Fauré thought unbalanced and too short) is based on an ostinato ("stubbornly" returning pattern) in an asymmetrical 5/8 meter. After a while, this ostinato yields to a more regular 3/4 which, once more, contains echoes of the first movement. A different musical character-the first aggressive, the second more lyrical-corresponds to each of these two meters. Their contrast carries the movement forward, right up to the singularly forceful conclusion.