Song 356: Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F, 1st Movement (1904)

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Classical music is largely about repetition, isn’t it? I know this shouldn’t be a revelation or anything, especially since all music is about repetition. But until recently, I hadn’t thought about how my favorite classical music takes a theme and repeats it in different contexts, with layers building upon and changing each other.

The main theme in the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F—the “Trés doux,” or the “sweet” or “soft” section—contains such repetitions. I love how the movement’s theme is introduced gently, like a cup of warm milk, only to be followed by many mutations; some variations are angry, some are sad, some are serene. But they’re all based on those handful of notes. In between those variations, of course, are interludes and, well other stuff. Ravel sure fits a lot of emotions into eight minutes, and I think it all holds together remarkably well.

Critics were apparently not keen on this early work, and Ravel wasn’t either. Luckily, his friend Claude Debussy cheered him up: “In the name of the gods of music and in my own,” wrote Claude to Maurice, “do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” I’m glad he didn’t.

The beautiful performance below is by the Hagen Quartett.

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