Ravel's Violin Sonata

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), Sonata for violin & piano No 2 in G (1927)
I Allegretto. II Blues. III Perpetuum mobile.

Ravel's second sonata for violin and piano had a four year gestation, possibly the longest of any of his works. The reason he had difficulty completing this piece is not entirely clear. During this same period he completed an opera (L'Enfant et les sortilèges) and wrote another now wildly popular violin piece (Tzigane). At least he managed to get some pedagogical mileage out of his struggle with the sonata: he used the occasion of his throwing into a burning fire the manuscript of a completed movement, now lost forever, to demonstrate to one of his students that he could be as critical of his own efforts as he was of others'.

Ravel himself played the piano part at the first performance of the sonata in 1927, with violinist Georges Enesco. Enesco, like Ravel, was a former composition student of Faure. The venue was the Salle Erard, Paris, where many of Ravel's earlier compositions (not to mention Liszt's) had first been publicly heard. Violinist Joseph Szigeti, who gave the American premiere of the sonata the following year, describes Ravel's piano playing as nonchalant, as if communicating in real-time was unimportant compared to the process of writing the notes on the page for posterity. (One witness to the American premiere recalls Szigeti's bow getting stuck between two violin strings in the third movement because he was unprepared for Ravel's quicker-than-rehearsal tempo, a story not recorded in Szigeti's memoirs.)

Ravel's biographer Roger Nichols describes the sonata as incorporating the tension between “diatonic/modal lyricism”, as in the first movement, and “propulsive rhythms, where harmony and melody are in some cases secondary”, as in the third. These outer movements, different though they are in character, share a unifying motif and are further connected by the middle movement, Blues, which is both lyrical and propulsive. This middle movement is the most adventurous of the three for its time. Jazz was still young and had only recently achieved some popularity in Paris, and Ravel had not yet been to America, where in 1928 he would meet Gershwin and visit New Orleans. The sonata's integration of jazz into European high culture is now seen as one of the first vehicles on a two-way street. Many pioneering jazz artists credited Ravel, Debussy and others with being direct influences.  “Classical” music and jazz have been infusing each other ever since.

Programme notes by Eric Usadi  © 2012