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Sonatine (1903-5)
by Maurice Ravel

(born March 7, 1875 near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France
died December 28, 1937 Paris, France)

Ravel’s inspiration for composing his Sonatine was a 1903 competition sponsored by a
fine arts and literary magazine called Weekly Critical Review. Ravel’s close friend, critic
M. D. Calvocoressi, was a contributor to the publication and encouraged Ravel to enter
the competition. The requirement was a first movement of a piano sonatina no longer
than seventy-five measures, and the prize offered was one hundred francs. The
magazine was nearing bankruptcy at the time and ultimately the publisher canceled the
competition. Ironically, Ravel would have probably won the competition since he was
the only entrant, but his first movement was a few measures too long.

Two years later, Ravel completed the second and third movements and the Sonatine was
issued in September 1905 by the Durand music publishing company in Paris, who had
recently offered Ravel a lifetime annuity of 12,000 francs for the first right of refusal for
his works. (Durand already had an identical contract with Debussy.) The modest and
wise Ravel explained to his friend Calvocoressi that he preferred to accept only 6,000
francs "so as not to risk feeling compelled to turn out a greater amount of music." From
that point on, Durand was Ravel’s exclusive publisher and has held the copyright on his
works until recently. This new Kalmus edition is based on the original 1905 Durand
publication. The autograph is held in the music department of the Bibliothèque
Nationale in Paris (MS. 22675). (There are also three pages of sketches of the first
movement in a private collection, two pages of which appear in facsimile in Arbie
Orenstein’s definitive 1975 biography Ravel, Man and Musician.)

I have added fingerings and translated the original French tempo and dynamic
indications into English in parentheses. A few markings have been added or changed for
the sake of conformity in recurrences of identical phrasing and articulation. I have also
suggested some redistribution of notes between the hands in order to make certain
complicated passages easier to play. These are marked with abbreviated hand indications
(l.h., r.h.). There are only four pedal markings in the original edition (two in the first
movement and one each in the second and last movements). I have added some
additional pedaling suggestions in parentheses.

Ravel dedicated the Sonatine to his dear friends Ida and Cipa Godebski. Madame Paule
de Lestang gave the world premiere of the work in Lyon, France on March 10, 1906. It
was premiered in Paris shortly afterward by Gabriel Grovlez at a concert on the series of
the Société Nationale de Musique at the Schola Cantorum. The Sonatine quickly became
popular with audiences and Ravel performed the first two movements regularly on
concert programs across Europe and during his tour of America in 1928. (He did not
often perform the last movement because he did not feel capable of playing it well
enough.) Ravel made a reproducing piano roll of the first two movements for the Welte-
Mignon Company in 1913 which is now available on LP records and CDs. However, the
inaccurate recording process of piano rolls does not necessarily guarantee an
authoritative guide to Ravel’s performance style.

The Sonatine is Ravel’s homage to late eighteenth-century musical elegance and
classical structure. The first movement is in F-sharp natural minor (Aeolian mode) and
is a sonata-allegro form. The Sonatine is a cyclical work that uses a descending perfect
fourth (F-sharp–C-sharp) and its inversion, the perfect fifth, as a recurring motive. The
opening theme of the first movement is transformed in the two subsequent
movements––a technique refined by Liszt, whom Ravel greatly admired for that
compositional device as well as for his virtuosity (c.f. Jeux d’eau and La valse). As the
tempo marking Modéré warns, one should not play too fast. The internal
accompaniment should be kept quiet and not allowed to "run away." The doubled
melody should be played very legato, keeping the fingers close to the keys, and the first
F-sharp should always be more emphasized than the C-sharp that follows (like a word
whose accent falls on the first syllable). Ravel frequently instructed pianists to make a
short break at the end of the main theme in measures 3 and 61 and again in measure 28
just before the repeat. I have added commas to reinforce his wishes.

Follow Ravel’s dynamics and articulations as closely as possible. He often said that his
indications should be strictly observed. Especially important are the accented upbeats
that begin on the F-sharp at the end of measures 3 and 5, and also 61 and 63, on the F-
sharp in measures 26 and 28 (within the first ending), on the C-sharp in measure 34,
and on the B at the end of measure 36. Similarly, the closing theme’s upbeat descending
perfect fourth (measures 23-25 and 81-83) should be emphasized as the diminuendos
indicate. Of compositional interest is a brief foreshadowing of the second movement’s
theme at the end of the first movement (measures 85-87). The thematic transformation
has already begun. Such was Ravel’s acute attention to detail.

The second movement minuet lacks the traditional trio, perhaps in keeping with the
abbreviated nature of a sonatina. It is written in D-flat major (instead of C-sharp major),
and its modal inflections recall an earlier Ravel work, the Menuet antique of ten years
before. Ravel told his pianist friend Marguerite Long to play this minuet "in the tempo of
the minuet of Beethoven’s E-flat Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 3" (which is marked
Moderato e grazioso). Ravel emphasizes the upbeat accents of the theme (as he did in
the first movement). These accents, coupled with an aristocratic tempo, prevent this
movement from becoming a waltz. According to pianist Vlado Perlemuter, Ravel said
that it should be played sensitively, but not over-refined.

Most pianists will find the awkward G octave with added A-flat in measure 8 easier to
play by placing the thumb carefully along the edge of the A-flat and playing both keys (G
and A-flat) at the same time. Rolling the chord is not advised. Likewise, do not roll the
chords in measure 21 or in measures 69-73. A secondary theme in measures 39-48 (an
echo of the first movement theme) is simultaneously presented in augmentation with
itself in the left hand, hence Ravel’s indication en dehors et expressif, which applies to
the upper voice of the left hand, chords in these measures. Be sure to replay the low E in
the left hand at the end of measure 40. It is slurred, not tied. Holding the pedal
throughout measures 52-54 (with slight half-pedal changes) enhances the F-flat modal
harmony and conceals the return of the main theme. Change the pedal fully at measure
55. In measure 80, I have suggested using the sostenuto pedal (marked sos. ped.) in
order to sustain the tied left-hand grace notes (D-flat and A-flat), as Ravel obviously

The last movement is a tour de force of brilliant virtuosic writing for the piano. It is a
perfect example of a toccata and is the musical descendant of the works of the French
claveciniste composers to whom Ravel felt spiritually connected (Rameau and
Couperin). It is strikingly similar to Debussy’s Mouvement from the first book of Images
and the Toccata from his Pour le Piano suite. Ravel would later enlarge the proportions
of this sonatina’s toccata to become the Toccata of Le tombeau de Couperin, a work of
Lisztian virtuosity.

Like the first movement, the Animé is composed in F-sharp minor and is in sonata-
allegro form. The main "theme" is not really a theme at all, but a series of horn calls
(beginning with the familiar perfect fourth motive (C-sharp–F-sharp), and should be
played as directed, très marqué (very accented). At measure 37 (and later at measure
140) Ravel transforms the first movement’s principal theme into a 5/4 meter and marks
the passage Même mouvement tranquille to make sure that the pianist recognizes it. A
similar passage occurs at measure 95. Be sure to play the left hand expressively here as
well. According to Ravel, the recapitulation (beginning at measure 106) should start
subito a tempo. He also suggested beginning measure 162 softly in order to build the
crescendo to an effective finale.

Richard Dowling, D.M.A.

New York, February 2003