Ravel & Beethoven op. 135 | 3/3/2020 7:00-8:00PM | Old Mission United Methodist Church | 5519 State Park Rd | Fairway, KS 66205
Composed as a desperate attempt to be readmitted to the Paris Conservatory, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major was written in 1902-03. Unfortunately, after submission, the piece was rejected by his professors and he would never set foot in the Conservatory again. The piece didn’t fair much better when he entered into the famous Prix de Rome, a competition with art scholarship awarded by the French government at the time. Widely compared to the Debussy string quartet composed a decade earlier, the works would prove to destroy the two composers relationship. Ravel’s words on the unfortunate situation, “it’s probably better for us after all to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons”. Debussy had a much more supportive tone, “In the name of the gods of music and in mind, do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet.” Nonetheless, Ravel’s only string quartet does bear many Debussyan qualities – they both have similar structures and textures, each work helped to solidify the composers Impressionistic style and each was the only quartet by the composer. The piece was one of his most spontaneous compositions – a fact that Ravel was aware of – in his later years he would claim to willingly exchange his technical skills for the “artless strength of this early work.” However, the work is far from artless. The first movement is in ternary form, traditional, logical and precise, based on the model of the early Piano Quartet of his teacher, Gabriel Faure (to whom the work is dedicated). The Scherzo movement uses complicated pizzicato cross-rhythms, tremolo and trills to create an otherworldly shimmer. The third movement is a slow, free-form rhapsody which switches between meters to create an improvisatory feel, followed by the lively Finale in 5/8, possibly inspired by his admiration for Borodin (although Faure said of the movement that it was “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure”). Despite it’s many critiques and failures, the work has stood the test of time, and is one of the most loved and widely played quartets in the whole of the repertoire.
Written in October of 1826, Beethoven’s Opus 135 was the last major work completed by the composer (only the last movement of Op. 130, written to replace the Große Fugue was composed later). Although included in his famous late quartet period, Op. 135 must be considered the black sheep of the group. Where the other late quartets are hugely grand in scale, reaching for new forms for the string quartet as a genre altogether, Op. 135 stands alone – short, airy and transparent in texture, playful and teasing in many ways – as if the composer suddenly decided upon a new and simple truth to life after years of struggle. On the manuscript, the opening chords of the final movement have underscored the words, “Muß es sein?” (Must it be?) with the response under the faster main theme of “Es Muß sein”! (It must be)! The last movement is headed “Der Schwer gefaßte Entschluß” (The Difficult Decision). The piece is musical summary of his life, entwining the influences of his early teacher Haydn with the thorny and contrapuntal harmonies of his other late quartets, a perfect balance of old and new, respecting tradition while still pushing the boundaries of the string quartet.