Quatuor en Sérénade
I. Allegro Moderato-Très doux
II. Assez vif- Très rhythmé
III. Très lent
IV. Vif et agité
Ravel’s only string quartet is another early work that embodies what would come to be the composer’s quintessential traits. In Ravel’s case, this meant an awareness of classical form, clarity of texture, and commitment to diatonic harmony that he learned through his mentor Gabriel Fauré (to whom the quartet is dedicated), combined with an inventiveness of harmonic color inspired by Debussy and his own awareness of instrumental timbre. As a string quartet, this work also embodies an essential quality of our common humanity: our desire for communication. From its classical roots, the string quartet functioned as a conversation among instrumental voices, ranging from argument to harmonious accord and everything in between.
The first movement, Très doux, takes the traditional sonata form, presenting first a sweet melody in the first violin with an accompaniment from the others full of expressive nuance. Ravel’s sensitivity to timbral quality is apparent in the second theme for the first violin and viola, voiced two octaves apart, producing a stark but vibrant sound. The development section focuses mostly on the first theme, moving through more turbulent harmonies, augmented by tremolos, double stops, and sudden dynamic swells, before returning in its clearest form for the recapitulation. While this movement is the most straightforward, there are subtle modernisms to be heard, including the whole-tone scale used in the first theme and the prevalence of oscillating motives, both of which can also be heard in Debussy’s music.
The second movement is a study in contrast and the capacity of string instruments in terms of articulation and tone color. Two themes alternate throughout, the first presented in a crisp pizzicato (plucked) and the second, bien chanté, in a singing arco (bowed). What follows is an exploration of all the possibilities of trills, tremolos, and swiftly oscillating accompaniments, sometimes in lightening quick alternation and over an impressive span of dynamics and range.
The use of mutes in the melancholy Trés lent lends the movement an antique atmosphere, at times sounding like a reed organ or a Renaissance viol ensemble. This turn toward the past is balanced, however, by more modernist extremes of range and emotion and unusual voicings in the harmony. A brief reminiscence of the first theme of the opening movement adds a cyclical element that is more typical of the nineteenth century, making the movement an impressive synthesis of influences.
The peaceful, luminous ending of the third movement is abruptly shattered by the beginning of the fourth movement with its forceful unison du talon, with each player playing at the heel of the bow. This finale, by turns restless and relentless, is perhaps the most greatly enhanced by the performance this evening “en serenade”, with whole sections magnifying each of the four voices of the quartet.