Given the vast number of piano trios that have been composed over time, one might think that the combination of violin, cello, and piano was an ensemble slam dunk—a natural combination along the lines of the string quartet with its secure blend and built-in balances. Anyone who has played in a piano trio can testify that such is most indubitably not the case. Quite the contrary: the piano trio is downright obstreperous, the piano all too capable of overwhelming the other two string instruments, not to mention the sharp disparity in overall sonority that results from harnessing a percussion instrument to a pair of strings.
When in 1914 Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) determined to compose a piano trio, he was all too aware of the difficulties engendered by the mixed marriage of piano and strings. His solutions are altogether successful and wide-ranging. Note the introduction, in which the piano plays a chordal melody in the right hand over undulating octaves in the left, after which the strings enter with their own version of the same melody. Both violin and cello are set high in their respective ranges, improving their audibility, but even more significantly, they are placed resolutely out of the piano’s way—the violin well above the piano, and the cello tucked in carefully between the piano’s right and left hands. Versions of the same strategy are found throughout the work—for example, a slower transitional passage in the first movement that places the piano’s soft chords above both string instruments. Ravel also made abundant use of alternate string techniques such as harmonics, pizzicato, tremolos, and sustained trills, all in the interest of maintaining a solid balance between the three instruments.
The end result is a piano trio with an orchestral sheen about it, one of the most sonically satisfying examples of the genre ever written. However, all that technical magic would be little more than intriguing frippery without solid content, and here also the trio shines forth. Its four movements are each meticulously constructed and filled with fascinating material, some of it drawn from Basque folk idioms (such as the zortziko rhythms of the first movement), and some of it reaching well beyond Ravel’s own time and place. Ravel titles the second movement Pantoum, which is a verse form from Malaysia in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. (Tidbit: Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “I Am Going to Like it Here” in Flower Drum Song are in pantoum from.) Precisely how that translates to music remains a bit of a mystery, but perhaps the movement’s alternating pair of themes suggested the verse form to Ravel.
The trio evokes the past in its third movement, a passacaille, better known in its Italian spelling as passacaglia. It’s a variation form stemming back to the sixteenth century, in which a repeated bass line provides a static foundation for an unfolding series of variations. In a fine bit of structural integration, Ravel derived that bass line from the first theme of the Pantoum. The spectacular finale makes use of irregular meters (fives and sevens, no less) and brings the work to a close in a sunburst of major mode.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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