Ravel’s only string quartet is now well-loved, frequently performed, and is considered his first masterpiece. But at the time it was written, the quartet caused much controversy.
To the consternation of the many critics who regarded Ravel’s talents as a composer with great esteem, Ravel failed to win the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome for the third time with the first movement of the quartet. While the premiere performance of the piece in its entirety was generally well received, not everyone was wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Fauré, Ravel’s teacher and to whom the work was dedicated, described the last movement as “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure” and advised him to make some major revisions. Debussy, on the other hand, counseled Ravel: “In the name of the gods of music, and in mine, do not touch a single note of what you have written in your quartet”.
Debussy’s string quartet had been premiered ten years earlier, and the two works were naturally compared. Despite Debussy’s initial support, accusations that Ravel was merely an imitator, with little creativity of his own, eventually led to a public cooling of the relations between the two composers.
Ravel’s four-movement quartet is highly unified, and the themes at the core of each movement are related to one or other of the contrasting themes introduced in sonata form in the first movement. Ravel’s development of these themes, with endless variations in tone colour, texture and style in a neatly refined neo-classical framework, are evidence of his enormous capacity for invention.
Like Debussy, Ravel was fascinated by the music of the East, and his particular interest in Javanese Gamelan is evident in the cross-rhythms and pizzicato texture of the second movement. The development of the theme in the rhapsodic third movement reveals a diverse array of subtly manipulated tone colours, while the final movement examines the effects of placing the thematic material in contrasting contexts.