Fig. 5.3 Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), a French composer, wrote his String Quartet in F Major in 1903. Ravel began piano lessons when he was 7 years old, took harmony lessons when he was 12, and was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire when he was 14 years old. While there, some of his teachers included Charles-Wilfrid Bériot, Emile Pessard, André Gédalge and Gabriel Fauré. Although Ravel won second place in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition, first place eluded him. Between 1900 and 1905, Ravel tried to win this award five times. After his last unsuccessful effort, music critics, his teachers and friends were so outraged by Ravel's unfair treatment in the competition, that the controversy led to the resignation of the director of the Paris Conservatoire. This incident, known as the "Affaire Ravel" uncovered the fact that all of the previous competition finalists were pupils of the same professor who also happened to be a prominent member of the competition's jury.  
Ravel began writing his only string quartet in 1903 while he was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire (he submitted the first movement of this quartet in his fourth unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome competition). Ravel's String Quartet in F was premiered in 1904, and although it was well received, some musicians gave it mixed reviews. Ravel dedicated the quartet to one of his teachers, Gabriel Fauré, but Fauré found fault with the last movement (Fauré felt it was too short). Other musicians such as Debussy praised Ravel's quartet, and it has remained popular to this day.
Ravel was influenced not only by his professors at the Paris Conservatoire, but also by the musical and intellectual environment of Paris. He acknowledged the impact of events such as the 1889 Paris World Exhibition, where he was exposed to the sounds of exotic instruments such as the Javanese gamelan and performances of Rimsky-Korsakov's nationalistic Russian music. Ravel also experimented with musical styles such as Impressionism. Impressionism began as an artistic movement, and was used to describe a style of art which was designed to convey an impression rather than a literal depiction of a scene (e.g. art created by Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet). This term was applied to music, particularly to compositions written by French composers in the early 20th century such as Debussy and Ravel. Impressionism in music sought to convey subtle impressions, moods and emotions through compositional techniques such as new chord combinations, sonorities and harmonies, colorful instrumentation, and exotic scales.
In 1912, Ravel was commissioned by Diaghilev to write Daphnis et Chloé for the Ballet Russe, and was later asked by Diaghilev to collaborate with Stravinsky to orchestrate Modest Musorgski's opera Khovanshchina (Stravinsky and Ravel had already met in 1909, but through their work together in 1913 for Musorgski's opera, they developed a close and lifelong friendship). Throughout his career, Ravel found ways to combine classical elements of structure and form with innovative approaches to composition such as modality, bitonality, elements of exoticism from other cultures, blues, and jazz. Some of the genres Ravel composed in included orchestral music, ballet, opera, songs, piano music and chamber music. After Debussy died in 1918, Ravel was considered by many to be France's leading composer. In 1920, France even offered Ravel the decoration of the Légion d'Honneur, but he refused to publicly accept this honor. 
TECHNIQUE TIPS: Ravel's Quartet in F demonstrates his skillful ability to use classical form and structure to present unified melodies and themes, complex rhythmic patterns, and a wide range of tone colors and textures. The excerpt selected for this piece is an arrangement of Ravel's second movement from his Quartet in F, "Assez Vif " (assez vif is French for "rather fast"). A few of the features in this movement include pizzicato, tremolo, key changes, and triplets.
The following is a brief explanation of some of the techniques needed to play this music: pizzicato and tremolo. Pizzicato (often abbreviated as pizz.) is a string instrument musical direction indicating that the string should be plucked with the finger instead of being bowed. String players generally use their right forefinger (index finger) to pluck the string, and before doing so, often place their right thumb against the right corner or side of the fingerboard to support their hand while plucking the string (cellists put their right thumb against the right side of the fingerboard). When plucking the string, try to pull the string sideways so it does not snap against the fingerboard (a specific type of pizzicato which does call for the string to be plucked forcefully so it snaps against the string is called "snap pizzicato" or "Bartok pizzicato." Bartok frequently employed this technique in his string music). A return to bowing is usually indicated by the term arco.
Tremolo means rapidly repeating a single note or chord. On stringed instruments, a tremolo may either be bowed or fingered. Bowed tremolo indicates the note should be played with very short, rapid and unaccented bow strokes, moving the bow back and forth for the duration of the note value. Tremolos are either measured (a subdivision of the note's rhythmic value) or unmeasured (play the note as fast as possible). Tremolo signs are indicated by short slanted lines through note stems. For example, one line through a stem indicates the bowed tremolo should be played using eight notes, two lines mean sixteenth notes, and three lines mean unmeasured tremolo. If tremolos are placed on a beamed note, the beam counts as one of these lines.
Unmeasured bowed tremolo
Unmeasured fingered tremolo
Fingered tremolos are played between more than one note (this is also known as slurred tremolo). Instead of the bow rapidly moving, the fingers rapidly alternate between two notes while the bow smoothly plays. Fingered tremolo is generally notated with incomplete beams placed between two notes to indicate the rhythmic value of the tremolo.
Although Ravel did use fingered tremolo in the second movement of his quartet, this arrangement has been simplified and does not include fingered tremolo. The only type of tremolo used in this arrangement is unmeasured bowed tremolo. To execute this bow stroke, use short, unaccented bow strokes in the upper third of your bow, and let your wrist be very flexible as you play the notes as fast as possible.
The title of this piece indicates that the music should be played "rather fast" (assez vif), and it should also be played very rhythmically. The small musical form that Ravel used for this movement is a scherzo. The term scherzo literally means "joke." As a small form in music, scherzos were typically used as the second or third movement of a symphony or quartet (in place of the minuet), and often were in a quick triple meter with a vigorous rhythm and a sharply contrasting harmony. Ravel's "Assez vif" definitely features these characteristics.