Jon Lee


Ravel Piano Trio in a minor

Program Notes

I think that at any moment I shall go mad or lose my mind. I have never worked so hard, with such insane heroic rage.


The source of Ravel’s rage was the dawn of World War I, and the output of his labor was his Piano Trio.

This piece represent an apex of his personal style before the war, when he was still unemcumbered by forces he would later face. As with his earlier chamber works including his famous String Quartet (1903) and Sonatine (1905), Ravel employed his signature lush textures, extended chords, and novel harmonic progressions.

In composing the Trio, Ravel was aware of the compositional difficulties posed by the genre: how to reconcile the contrasting sonorities of the piano and the string instruments, and how to achieve balance between the three instrumental voices, especially since the cello often is not heard as easily. Ravel addressed this problem by taking an orchestral approach, using the extreme ranges of each instrument, creating rich textures and effects with trills, harmonics, and arpeggios. To achieve clarity in texture and secure balance, Ravel frequently spaced the violin and cello lines two octaves apart, with the right hand of the piano playing between them.

In the trio’s opening movement Modéré, he manipulates the conventional design of the sonata-allegro movement. The second theme, introduced by the violin in the exposition, does not modulate to either the relative major or dominant, and remains the same when later stated by the cello. Using different chords and following the textures of the development, the intimated recapitulation deceptively restates the first theme, and only later when the theme is transposed exactly does the audience realize its arrival. This technique was favored by Ravel, who was fond of the way Mendelssohn used it in his Violin Concerto, when the orchestra restates the first theme by “interrupting” the violin’s cadenza in the work’s opening movement.

Inspiration for the musical content of the Trio came from a wide variety of sources. In the opening movement, Modéré, Ravel evokes the Basque music from his native region by using an irregular 3+2+3 meter. The Pantoum of the second movement refers to a form of verse used in Malaysian poetry, where the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. The third movement, a stately Passacaille reflecting Baroque techniques, is a haunting set of ten variations progressive in their intensity until the seventh one. The Final is orchestral in nature, containing many references to Ravel’s Spanish influences.

After the war, Ravel was facing a Parisian public that was increasingly eschewing past references and seeking a new simplicity. Stuck with a case of the writer’s block, he struggled to adapt to the new musical trends while still remaining true to himself as a composer. Later, his fascination with jazz would lead to his integration of the art form in his second violin sonata (1927) and Piano Concerto in G (1931).

Other resources

  • Updates:
  • 10 Sep 2022 — Adopted from Alden Trio program notes

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