String Quartet (Ravel)

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Motive from Ravel's String Quartet, first movement.[1] About this sound Play 

Maurice Ravel completed his String quartet in F major in early April 1903 at the age of 28. It was premiered in Paris in March the following year. The work follows a four-movement classical structure: the opening movement, in sonata form, presents two themes that occur again later in the work; a playful scherzo second movement is followed by a lyrical slow movement. The finale reintroduces themes from the earlier passages and ends the work vigorously.

The structure of the quartet is modelled on that of Claude Debussy's String Quartet, written in 1893, although each composer's musical ideas were strongly contrasted with the other's. Debussy admired Ravel's piece rather more than did its dedicatee, Ravel's teacher Gabriel Fauré.


Ravel had been a student at the Paris Conservatoire, but his unconventional ideas had incurred the displeasure of its ultra-conservative director Théodore Dubois and some other members of the faculty. His friend and teacher Gabriel Fauré continued to encourage and advise him, and Ravel made continual efforts to win the country's top musical award, the Prix de Rome in the face of resistance from the Conservatoire regime. By 1904 it was becoming clear to the musical public that Ravel was the outstanding French composer of his generation. Among his works by that date were the piano pieces Pavane pour une infante défunte and Jeux d'eau and 1904 saw the premieres of his orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade and the String Quartet.[2]

The quartet has superficial resemblances to Debussy's String Quartet, written ten years earlier. Debussy approved of his younger colleague's work, and sent him an encouraging letter.[3] Ravel's quartet is modelled on Debussy's as far as the structure is concerned, but where Debussy's music is, in Orenstein's words, "effusive, uninhibited, and open[ing] up fresh paths", Ravel's music displays emotional reticence, innovation within traditional forms, and unrivalled technical mastery.[4] Ravel followed a direction he described as "opposite to that of Debussy's symbolism", abandoning "the vagueness and formlessness of the early French impressionists in favour of a return to classic standards."[5]

The quartet was premiered at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique on 5 March 1904, played by the Heymann Quartet.[6] It was dedicated to Fauré, who was not greatly taken with the piece, but was nonetheless present at the performance. The critics were divided on the merits of the work. Pierre Lalo, already a staunch opponent of Ravel, dismissed it as derivative ("it offers an incredible resemblance to the music of M. Debussy")[7] but Jean Marnold of the Mercure de France praised the work and described Ravel as "one of the masters of tomorrow".[8] The work had its London premiere in 1908 (the reviewer in The Musical Times found the music "chiefly remarkable for vagueness of significance, incoherence, and weird harmonic eccentricities")[9] and its German premiere in Berlin in 1910.[10] By 1914 the work was so well established that a London critic was able to compare performances by the Parisian String Quartet with those of British players in consecutive months.[11] The quartet has remained, in Orenstein's phrase, "a standard work in the chamber music repertory".[12]


The quartet is in four movements.

1. Allegro moderato – très doux[edit]

The movement is in traditional sonata form, based on two contrasting themes. The first, rising and falling through a long arc, is played by all four players at the opening and taken over by the first violin, accompanied by scalar harmonies in the lower instruments. The second theme, more reflective in character, is played by first violin and viola playing two octaves apart. The development section, straightforward and traditional, is predominantly lyrical, gaining intensity before the recapitulation. In the recapitulation, the return of the second theme is subtly changed, with the upper three parts remaining identical to the exposition, but the cello raised a minor third, moving the passage from D minor to F major. The pace slows and the movement ends very quietly.[13]

2. Assez vif – très rythmé[edit]

As in Debussy's quartet the scherzo is the second movement, and opens with a pizzicato passage. This first theme is in the Aeolian mode, which some writers, including the Ravel scholar Arbie Orenstein, detect the influence of the Javanese gamelan, which had greatly impressed both Debussy and Ravel when heard in Paris in 1889.[14] Others hear in it echoes of Ravel's Spanish descent.[15] The central section of the music is a slow, wistful theme, led by the cello. Ravel uses cross rhythms, with figures in triple time played at the same time as figures in double time. The key varies from A minor to E minor and G sharp minor. The movement concludes with a shortened reprise of the opening section.[13]

3. Très lent[edit]

Despite the marking "very slow", the third movement has numerous changes of tempo. The viola introduces the first theme, which the first violin then repeats. There are strong thematic links with the first movement, and, in defiance of orthodox rules of harmony, conspicuous use of consecutive fifths. The music is rhapsodic and lyrical; it begins and ends in G sharp major. with passages in A minor and D minor.[13]

4. Vif et agité[edit]

The finale reverts to the F major of the first movement. It is loosely in the form of a rondo. The opening bars are stormy, and the movement, though short, has several changes of time signature, 5
to 5
to 3
. Short melodic themes are given rapid tremolandi and sustained phrases are played against emphatic arpeggios. There are brief moments of calm sections, including a reference to the first subject of the opening movement. The turbulence of the opening bars of the finale reasserts itself, and the work ends vigorously.[13]

The work generally takes something in the region of half an hour to play. Some typical timings on record are given in the following table.

Quartet I II III IV Total Ref
Talich 7.51 6.24 8.13 4.34 27.02 [16]
Amati 7.57 6.45 8.10 5.00 27.52 [17]
Belcea 7.49 6.02 8.35 5.27 27.53 [18]
Alban Berg 7.40 6.51 9.20 4.54 28.45 [19]
Chilingirian 8.36 6.21 8.39 5.28 29.04 [20]
Juilliard 8.57 6.31 9.19 5.27 30.14 [21]
Brodsky 8.41 6.27 9.40 5.34 30.22 [22]


During Ravel's lifetime, Ginette Martenot transcribed the first movement of the quartet for ondes Martenot, gaining the composer's approval.[23] The conductor Rudolf Barshai arranged the whole quartet for small string orchestra in 2003.[24]


  1. ^ White, p. 30
  2. ^ Kelly, Barbara L. "Ravel, Maurice", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, retrieved 26 June 2015 (subscription required)
  3. ^ Letter from Debussy, dated 4 March 1904, reproduced in Nichols, p. 53
  4. ^ Orenstein, p. 127
  5. ^ Orenstein, Arbie. "Maurice Ravel", The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Winter 1995), p. 101 (subscription required)
  6. ^ Nichols, p. 52
  7. ^ Orenstein, pp. 39–40
  8. ^ Orenstein, p. 40
  9. ^ "London Concerts", The Musical Times, Vol. 49, No. 779 (1 January 1908), p. 40 (subscription required)
  10. ^ "Foreign Notes", The Musical Times, Vol. 51, No. 814 (1 December 1910), p. 805 (subscription required)
  11. ^ "London Concerts", The Musical Times, Vol. 55, No. 852 (1 February 1914), p. 118 (subscription required)
  12. ^ Orenstein, p. 39
  13. ^ a b c d Nichols, pp. 52–54; Orenstein, p. 155; and Stowell, p. 256
  14. ^ Orenstein, pp. 11 and 155; and Kelly, Barbara L. "Ravel, Maurice", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, retrieved 26 February 2015 (subscription required)
  15. ^ Stowell, p. 256
  16. ^ Notes to La Dolce Vita recording LDV08 (2012), OCLC 906570425
  17. ^ Notes to Divox recording CDX-28902 (2008), OCLC 299069067
  18. ^ Notes to EMI recording 0724357402057 (2005), OCLC 885050737
  19. ^ Notes to EMI recording 0724356755154 (2009), OCLC 885042184
  20. ^ Notes to CFP recording 0094638223153 (2007), OCLC 885038370
  21. ^ Notes to Sony recording 884977238334 (1993), OCLC 30528199
  22. ^ Notes to Orchid recording ORC100012 (2010), OCLC 811550709
  23. ^ Laurendeau, p. 23
  24. ^ "Rudolf Barshai", The Daily Telegraph, 4 November 2010


External links[edit]