Thoughts About the Music

Friday, June 11

Maurice Ravel – Sonata for Violin and Cello

This ruthless, striking sonata was written by Ravel between 1920 and 1922 and was dedicated to the memory of Debussy, who had died in 1918. Ravel had struggled immensely to gain status as a pianist and composer during his time in Paris, entering the Prix de Rome competition 5 times to no avail. After gaining some critical acclaim for his String Quartet and Jeux d’eau, Ravel joined a group of eclectic artists known as Les Apaches or “the outsiders” which solidified him as a prominent figure in the French arts. Soon after Ravel began to compose his complex and riveting Sonata for Violin and Cello. The sonata picks up where Debussy left off in his late works, drawing on the stripped-back nature of the harmonies and emphasis on melodic material. Ravel also draws on Hungarian folk music, with bits of Kodály and Bartók peeking out around the work. Despite the complex, unhinged nature of the piece, Ravel gives the work a feeling of unity by continuously transforming previous themes. The first movement is characterized by a ghostly effect in which the cello plays higher than the violin, evoking a unique and unfamiliar atmosphere. As the cello begins its descent into its lowest depths, a sense of groundedness emerges from the texture. The second movement, a scherzo, draws heavily on the use of plucky pizzicati, a sort of tradition among the second movements of Debussy and Ravel, including both of their string quartets. However, in this movement, the tradition of the light-spirited scherzo is nowhere to be found. Instead, a menacing nature evokes a threatening and violent attitude. The next movement begins with the cello playing an uneasy, twisted melody. The violin joins shortly after, with tints of dissonances and complex interplay that grow in intensity. The movement rises to a distorted climax, quickly falling back into depths of melancholy and remorse. The final movement, Vif, is fierce and ambitious, taking elements from the scherzo movement and violently ripping them apart until a rocking cello line brings the movement to its conclusion.

Missy Mazzoli – Vespers for Violin

Missy Mazzoli has a mission when it comes to her compositions. Her goal is to use her work to connect with others and create a sense of community around one topic everyone can find solace in — music. Her composition for solo violin and electronics works is extremely personal, with ambient soundscapes that lead the listener on a path into the unknown. Although Mazzoli is not religious herself, she has always been fascinated with the rituals and traditions of religion. Therefore, Vespers is a testament to the meditative journey of prayer, with eerie and enchanting moods that work to guide the solo violin through a dream-like invocation. Typically a traditional evening prayer, the idea of Vespers attempts to transform this silent act into a musical metaphor, with choral voices, surreal looping patterns, and hazy organ textures.

Ernő Dohnányi – Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-Flat minor Op. 26

Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 2 marks the very peak of his career as a composer. Tinged with feelings of nostalgia, it may come as a surprise that this is not a late work of Dohnányi’s. However, the surroundings and background of this composition have much to do with the quintet’s charming familiarity. At 37 years old, Dohnányi was far from the prodigious teenager he began as — he composed his first quintet at just 18 years old. While grieving the death of his father, his marriage began to crumble as he began a passionate affair with the German actress Elza Galafrés. At the same time, prompted by the start of World War I, he returned to his home country of Hungary after ten years teaching in Berlin. Against this background, Dohnányi began composing his second quintet. Turbulent at times, the music can be seen as a musical struggle between Dohnányi and his circumstances. From the opening, the listener is captivated by the hollow octave string melody above the somber pedal of the piano. The macabre nature of the first melody is complemented by a curious yet passionate second theme. An eerie third theme emerges before a stormy development begins to bubble up from within and the movement closes in a soft, desperate manner. The Intermezzo movement is unique in form and style, with seemingly unstructured sections that feel both bittersweet and soul-crushing. The final movement begins with deep introspection in the form of a fugue that becomes muddled by operatic piano lines. As it progresses, the music seems to become less foggy, untangling itself as the opening theme from movement one returns — this time in major, casting the piece into an ethereal atmosphere.

©2021 Nicole Martin