About this work
Maurice Ravel openly admired Debussy for his musical achievements, but refused to accept accusations of imitating his work. The desire for tonal and harmonic gradation is one of many similarities, which have been drawn between the work of the two men. Upon Debussy's death in 1918, Ravel became widely recognized as France's leading composer and was even offered the Légion d'Honneur in 1920, but being a man who considered popularity an offense, he publicly refused the decoration. Between 1920-1924 he wrote works which gave homage to his predecessors including his Sonata for Violin and Cello, which he dedicated to Debussy's memory.
The work was a continuation of Ravel's interest in counterpoint, and he considered it a turning point, stating that in the piece "the music is stripped down to the bone. The allure of harmony is rejected and increasingly there is a return of emphasis on melody." The music was not only stripped of harmony, but Ravel stripped the traditional sonata down to merely two instruments. In doing so, difficulties arose as Ravel sought to solve the problem of balancing parts by eliminating them. This bold move was based upon Debussy's notion of "depouillement" (economy of means) and was of interest to Satie, Stravinsky, and the postwar generations of composers.
Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello was written following a period of physical and emotional recovery from the turbulence of the war, his own bout of dysentery, and the death of his mother. Similar to his Piano Trio and String Quartet Ravel employed a cyclical structure in his sonata. With a focus on coherent and reasoned development of form, the work contains four movements, which are marked in the following order: allegro, très vif (a scherzo), lent, and vif, avec entrain. The work is built upon two main themes, both of which are stated in the first 50 bars of the opening allegro movement. The first is an alternation of the minor and major triads and it is heard in its entirety in the second movement, a bit in the third, and in the middle of the fourth. The second theme is the succession of consecutive sevenths and is the more common of the two, appearing in the beginning of the second and third movements and in a climactic moment in the middle of the finale. The two methods Ravel used to continuously reintroduce the two themes throughout the work were an alternation of a single motif between the two instruments and a separation of parts to maintain clear counterpoint. In the third movement, the concepts of the first two themes combine when minor and major sevenths alternate as did the minor and major thirds of the first movement. This compositional decision reinforces the success of Ravel's achievement to accurately develop the work. The Sonata for Violin and Cello was a piece of thoughtful detail which superbly demonstrated the potential of Debussy's notion while helping Ravel to continue to stand out among his contemporaries.