Ravel’s Ondine in disguise

The last two entries dealt with how Schumann built his phenomenal F-sharp minor sonata “struggling” throughout with the genre of the sonata. The very precepts of the genre—sonata form and the balance between movements—were called into question by Schumann. This week, however, I will look at perhaps the very opposite of that: how another great composer surreptitiously reverts to this traditional form in a work of spontaneous programmatic music, just to eventually break with it.

Ravel’s three-movement cycle for piano, Gaspard de la nuit, was written in 1908 and is famous for having near-insurmountable technical challenges for the piano (at least, for pianists of that time). Its three movements are based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand, a poet of the first half of the 19th century. The first movement, Ondine, which depicts a seductive water nymph, is characterized by enchanting harmonies and piquant figures demanding all sorts of contortions from the pianist. The depictions of the subaqueous world are at times lucid and at times lurid, and towards the end, a roaring eruption gives way to a prolonged “calming of the whirlpool”, which brings the movement to an end. But what is perhaps most curious about Ondine is an aspect that remains disguised: Ravel’s use of sonata form. It isn’t a traditional sonata form movement, but it starts as one, and at a very particular point breaks away from its initial form. 

The main indicator of its sonata-form-ness is its clear sense of an exposition. The first theme is introduced (in the rare key of C-sharp major), and following a transition, a second theme is clearly prepared and then introduced in the dominant (G-sharp major). There is also a clear beginning to the development, which starts with the first theme transposed up a tone. So why is the sonata form in disguise? Because it lacks one common, but not necessary characteristic of a sonata form movement—contrast between the two themes. We are used to hearing two distinct characters in the two themes—usually an assertive first theme and a lyrical second one. In Ondine, however, the flow of the water is uninterrupted by sonata form, and the stream of thirty-second notes flows right through all sections and sub-sections of the music, which obscures any notion of having first and second themes, as well as an exposition and a development. 

Despite the uncharacteristic perpetual motion, the development section functions just as a normal development in a sonata form movement would: it juxtaposes the two main themes in many different figurations and harmonic variants. But then, at exactly the point where a recapitulation section should come, “all hell breaks loose”, and the initial form of Ondine explodes and then disintegrates into oblivion. 

Taking up merely two bars, the climactic point of Ondine is one of the most notorious places of the whole cycle. The two hands cover most of the range of the piano in gushing and volcanic passages marked fortissimo. These passages are in fact based around the second theme, played in the right hand, but usually covered up by the sheer mass of sound and pedal. That is precisely the point where the recapitulation should come and the initial theme should reemerge from underwater. But this doesn’t happen. The climax very quickly turns into an anticlimax, and following four bars of the harmony “in limbo”, all the debris from the wreckage is “washed away” by a soft glissando on the white keys (quite the contrast from the key of C-sharp major, which has seven sharps), leaving the whole structure in limbo. This section quotes fragments from the exposition, and finally reintroduces the first theme… in the wrong key of G-sharp minor, implying a sense of forlornness in a movement in a major key. C-sharp major is indeed reached at the very end of the movement, but only after another jarring tornado of arpeggios up and down the keyboard out of which no theme can emerge, just the C-sharp major arpeggio in a soft and almost spooky manner.  In an earlier entry about a little Haydn sonata, I mentioned parenthetically that the first movement of Ravel’s A minor trio is the only example I can think of where the two subjects are in the same key in a sonata form movement. In Ondine, we see yet again how Ravel uses this form just to upend it and break its most fundamental rules. Ravel was famously averse to Germanic traditions and to the line of German composers who preceded him. After all, he was probably the only great composer who is known to have disliked Beethoven (reportedly calling Beethoven’s cello sonatas “average”). In this case, what do his ventures into sonata form tell us about him? Is it a sort of vengeance against the form, where he uses it just to break it, or is it an expression of secret affinity to the very edifice he so fervently attacked?

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