Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

While string duos are often lightweight pedagogical works, Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello is a tour-de-force, its thin instrumentation jacked up with blazing string crossings, piercing harmonics, and snapping pizzicatos. At the same time, Ravel embraces a kind of bareness in his materials, lending an all-around sense of doing a lot with a little. “I think this sonata marks a turning point in my career,” he wrote. “The music is stripped to the bone. The allure of harmony is rejected and more and more there is a return of the emphasis on melody.”

Begun in 1920, following the First World War (in which the 40-year-old Ravel had volunteered to serve as a transport driver after being turned down as a pilot), the sonata leaves behind Romantic lushness and blur in favor of edges and angles. But it also looks backward in its dedication to the memory of Claude Debussy, who died in 1918. In life, the two composers had a mixed relationship. Debussy, who was 13 years older, admired Ravel, but was at times competitive with him. Ravel, on the other hand, was heavily influenced by Debussy, but wanted to be heard as a unique voice and not as a follower of another’s style.

Ravel finished the Sonata in 1922, at first simply calling it “Duo.” In the first movement, the cello plays higher than the violin in delicate passages, an unnatural inversion of ghostly color. Then as the cello descends to its bass range, it feels like a tug down to earth. The scherzo is drawn largely in pizzicato—something of a second-movement tradition between Ravel and Debussy, also found in both their string quartets. In the duo, however, the effect is not so good-spirited and instead feels acerbic and insincere.

The Andante begins with the lonesome cello, then forces a growing melody between the two instruments—tinged with dissonance—into a grotesque climax, followed by doubt and lingering regret. The last movement, Vif, avec entrain (lively, with spirit), picks up threads from the scherzo, tangling them into knots, cutting them apart, and tying them back into non sequiturs.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.