Spotlight on Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor M 67

2018 is the Seraphim Trio’s year of celebrating the history of the piano trio and exploring the way different composers have used the piano trio form in  response to the world around them, including the events, the powerful concerns and influences of their day.  Their concert for Sydney Mozart Society on 29 June 2018 will include Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, a work that has an important place in the history of the Piano Trio for the way in which it combines classical form with the spirit of the early twentieth century.

  

Maurice Ravel

                                          Maurice Ravel au piano 1912
           Photo Credit: Unknown - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain

 

Ravel was one of the foremost French composers of the early twentieth century. Igor Stravinsky likened  him to a “Swiss clockmaker” – a composer who followed classical forms with meticulous balance and proportion. He moved away from the brooding intensity of French Romantic music to create  a light-filled magical other-worldly atmosphere in his works. Much like impressionist painters he could capture fleeting moments and enigmatic ideas in evanescent sounds. He was an internationalist, inspired by the art, music and literature of his own Basque heritage and the cultures of distant countries. He was also a very thoughtful man whose experience of the First World War heightened the emotional turmoil in his music. 

In the “Cambridge Companion to Ravel”, Barbara Kelly writes of how Mozart was Ravel’s favourite composer, the composer he described as perfection. She quotes an interview with an Austrian paper in 1932 when Ravel stated how close he felt to Mozart: “Beethoven strikes me as a classical Roman, Mozart as a sunny Helene. I feel myself closer to the open sunny Helenes.” Ravel’s affinity for Mozart is apparent in his masterful use of classical forms and in his exquisite crafting of musical details. 

Ravel completed his piano trio M 67 in September 1914, although he was thought to have worked on it for some considerable time before then. He wrote to his student  Maurice Delage: “I have written the trio, now I have to find the themes.” Possibly meaning that he had worked out the architectural form of the work and must then work on the detail. He also wrote about the challenge of creating rich harmonies and texture in the trio to give each instrument true equality and virtuoso prominence. The outbreak of the First World War created urgency for Ravel to finish the Trio. He worked incessantly for five weeks to complete the Trio, before joining the French Army and being rushed to the front as a medical orderly. 

The first public performance of the Trio was in 1915. Against the backdrop of war, it received little public interest or critical attention. It has since come to be  recognised as one of Ravel’s greatest chamber works.  The first two movements  - Sonata Allegro and Scherzo - are memorable for their haunting melodies, their their complex rhythms and beguiling harmonies. The third movement is a refined and majestic Baroque-style passacaglia. The fourth movement returns to Sonata Allegro form; it develops with drama, rage and conflict to an electrifying finale. 

Ravel’s Piano Trio achieves true equality for each instrument. The parts for piano, violin and ‘cello all make virtuoso demands on the performers’ technique. They must each express an wide range of emotional moods from the gentle to the furious. It will be an exciting concert experience for Sydney Mozart Society when the members of the Seraphim Trio, one of Australia’s most distinguished chamber ensembles, take on the challenges of this fascinating work.