A conversation with Yonah Zur
This summer I will occasionally post conversations with the artists who were scheduled to come to Newburyport this summer.
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
Sonata for violin and cello
For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened - then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Just think what was going in the Roaring '20s in art, literature, science, politics, society. The rule book had been thrown out the window following the war to end all wars. Art Deco and Surrealism swept the Continent as the automobile and radio transformed American society. Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic making the world smaller as astronomer Edwin Hubble turned his telescope to the night sky, discovering other galaxies and changing our perception of the cosmos. Suffragettes in Washington got the 19th Amendment passed while the 18th ushered in Prohibition. Germans were undergoing the democratic experiment called the Weimar Republic while producing moody cinematic masterworks of expressionism such as “Nosferatu, the Vampire” and Louis Armstrong recorded “Heebie Jeebies” in Chicago. Architect Le Corbusier wanted to demolish entire “airless” precincts of downtown Paris and replace them with white towers. Hemingway was busy with his own demolition, distilling English to its bare essentials, while Nick Carraway witnessed the end of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. In Vienna, composer Arnold Schoenberg proclaimed “the emancipation of dissonance,” rejecting centuries of traditional tonality; further east, Bartók looked for inspiration among goatherds and farmers, not pointy-headed urban academics.
Such was the context in which the Ravel Duo was written. In 1920, Ravel, along with Stravinsky, Satie, Manuel de Falla, and Bartók, was asked to compose a tribute to the memory of Debussy, who had died in March. The two men had a complex relationship: cast by the public into opposing camps, this had an inevitable effect on what had been a close friendship, Ravel stating ”it’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.” Ironically, with its spare Debussy-like lines, the Duo proved a turning point in Ravel’s artistic development. He described the piece as “music stripped to the bone, the allure of harmony rejected, and increasingly the emphasis returns to the melody.” In reducing harmony to a by-product, Ravel created a piece that is one great melody after another.
On the final program for the festival this summer, the Ravel and Bartók, written six years apart, have more in common than may first appear. Both works are obsessed with texture and pushing technical limits, Ravel challenging the individual players and Bartók pushing the string quartet to its edge. The Duo encompasses a vast range of colors such as the louche, jazzy ambiance of the second movement or the symphonic sounds of the fourth. The prayer-like third movement reminds me of an early morning conversation after a thunderstorm where one lover whispers to the other “are you awake?” while the rain outside patters lightly on the leaves.
Here is a lovely performance by the French duo of Jean-Jacques Kantorow (violin) and Philippe Muller (cello):
David Yang, Artistic Director