Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 was a long time in the making, with the first ideas put down as early as 1922 and the premiere in 1927—all for about 17 minutes of music. In the intervening years, the middle-aged composer struggled with depression and his musical output slowed to a trickle. Deadlines flew by. The sonata was intended for the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, and in April 1922 he was already delinquent, writing to inform her of the delay, saying, “You won’t kill me on this account?” The following year he began to make progress on the sonata, and the premiere was announced for January 1924 in London. Yet it was still not completed, and another piece replaced it on that program.
Three years later, he finally finished the sonata in a creative bloom that also brought the opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges and the song cycle Chansons madécasses to completion. By then, however, Jourdan-Morhange had developed arthritis and retired from her violin career, so the premiere went to George Enescu (the Romanian composer), joined by Ravel on piano.
The sonata’s centerpiece is “Blues,” which channels the music of America, a country Ravel had not yet visited. But jazz, which could be heard in Parisian cafés by the early 1920s, offered Ravel a way to express his own “blues,” perhaps helping him to overcome his creative block. The sonata’s outer movements include a rolling Allegretto on one side and a scurrying Perpetuum mobile on the other.