In March 1928 Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote an article for the Musical Digest titled ‘Take Jazz Seriously!’ in which he claimed that “Abroad we take jazz seriously. It is influencing our work. The Blues in my sonata, par example, is stylized jazz, more French than American in character perhaps, but nevertheless influenced strongly by your so-called ‘popular music.’”
A trip to America (including an appearance with the San Francisco Symphony) had given Ravel’s fascination with jazz a power boost; we hear of meetings with George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, and Bix Beiderbecke, and of nights in the Cotton Club where he soaked up the musicians’ “frightening virtuosity.” He shared that passion with violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, who had premiered his earlier Sonata for Violin and Cello. Ravel consulted with her throughout the composition of the G major Sonata (actually his second violin sonata; his first was an incomplete student work) and her influence shows in the work’s extraordinary violin part, written with the insider knowledge of the instrument that only a violinist could provide. Jourdan-Morhange would probably have gone on to play the premiere of the work, but rheumatism brought her career to an unfortunate end. Instead, George Enescu played the 1927 premiere at the Salle Érard, with Ravel at the piano.
Ever sensitive to both the physical and acoustic qualities of the instruments for which he wrote, Ravel recognized that a fundamental mis match exists between violin and piano: one is capable of sustaining tones through continual control of a string’s vibration, while the other is a percussion instrument that sets the string into motion with one sharp blow. In the Violin Sonata he exploited the two instruments’ differences more than their similarities, generally avoiding a smooth blend between the two.
In this work Ravel often treats the piano in the manner of a Baroque sonata, in which the keyboard instrument is assigned two simultaneous melodic lines rather than playing block harmonies or conjuring up washes of sound. Such a clear horizontal texture is bound to complement the violin’s single-voice melodic line, as is aptly proven throughout the chaste and silky Allegretto opening movement. A distinctly neoclassical affair in sonata form with fluid rhythmic boundaries, it keeps the overall harmonic sense somewhat vague until the closing paragraph reveals a tonic key of G Lydian—i.e., like G major but with a raised fourth scale degree.
The second-place Blues movement is celebrated for its evocation of blues singing, as a ruminative melody, free in both rhythm and precise pitches, is spun out over a steady chordal accompaniment. In this movement, however, it’s not always the violin that is the blues singer, nor is it always the piano that’s the piano; the two trade places from time to time. The concluding Perpetuum mobile is precisely what the title implies: a non-stop virtuoso showpiece primarily for the violin with the piano providing rhythmic support and harmonic pungency.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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