The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio in A minor

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Richard Rodda

Ravel first mentioned that he was planning a trio for piano, violin and cello in a letter of 1908, but he only got around to sketching ideas for the piece in 1913 at his summer retreat in the seaside town of St. Jean-de-Luz in the southern Basque region (and just across a small river from his birthplace); he did not begin serious work on the score until the following April at St. Jean. He spent the next three months dabbling leisurely with the score, balancing his labors with long explorations of the surrounding countryside and abundant socializing, but this pleasant schedule was ruined when the Guns of August unleashed their fearsome roar across the Continent to start World War I in 1914. Ravel pledged to aid France's war effort, but first he determined to finish the Trio. He applied himself unsparingly to the work at the beginning of August, and then reported to the garrison at Bayonne to apply for military service. His constitution was frail, however, and his height and weight below the minimum standard, so he was refused entry into the army and instead worked as an orderly in a military hospital, an exercise in patriotism that impaired his health for the rest of his life. The premiere of the Piano Trio was given on January 28, 1915 at a Société Indépendente concert in the Salle Gaveau in Paris by pianist Alfredo Casella (the Italian composer living in Paris since the 1890s, and one of Ravel's closest friends), violinist Gabriele Willaume and cellist Louis Teuillard, but, in a country absorbed with war, the event drew little notice. More peaceful consideration of the work has since recognized it as one of Ravel's consummate creations.

The Trio's first movement, written in an irregular but easily flowing meter (8/8) derived from Basque folk music, follows traditional sonata form. The main theme, begun by the piano and taken over by the strings, is a close-interval melody in sensuous, tightly packed parallel harmonies which rises to a peak of intensity before subsiding for the presentation of the subsidiary subject, a lovely, wide-ranging theme that arches through much of the violin's compass. The development is concerned exclusively with the principal theme and so leads seamlessly into the recapitulation, where shortened versions of the main and second subjects provide balance and formal closure. A specter of the main theme hovers above the quiescent coda.

The second movement, titled Pantoum, serves as the Trio's scherzo. The pantun is a Malaysian poetic form in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third of the next. Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire and other French 19th-century writers adapted the pantun for some of their works, and Ravel here made an ingenious musical analogue of the technique by inserting music from the scherzo into the central trio.

The third movement is a passacaglia, the old Baroque form in which a melody is repeated intact several times (eight in this Trio) and glossed on each recurrence by different counterpoint and harmonies. The theme of this Passacaille is a pensive melody that first unwinds in the deep bass notes of the piano before migrating to other instrumental territories.

The finale is music of enormous tensile strength whose feverish, pent-up emotion is held precisely in check by the clarity of its melodic and contrapuntal lines and the integrity of its sonata-rondo form.