This piece of music has long been one of my absolute favorites. From the first sparkling, crystalline chords, this short movement from Ravel’s “Sonatine” seems to cast a magical spell that lasts until the last clanging bell tones of the coda fade into silence. Here’s my analysis of the first half of the score, but I have to admit that ultimately there’s no way to intellectually explain why the piece is so emotional for me.
The form of the piece on a macro level is that of a typical minuet minus the trio, in other words, simply A-A’ (Two large similar sections with the second slightly changed). However, each of those macro A‘s is a binary form itself, or a-b (two contrasting or differing sections – with the b sections admittedly taking a lot of melodic material from the a sections). Here’s my diagram of the form, with the harmonic structure beneath:
Check out the beginning of the a section and how rhythmically diverse the melody is over the repeating, chime-like chords underneath. There are three elements here coexisting and fitting together perfectly – the melody, the Db/Ab chime tones, and the bassline/countermelody, ascending and descending along the Db major scale.
Notice how the melody repeatedly emphasizes the 2nd eighth note of each measure, and how the accompaniment evenly marks each of 3 eighth notes like a metronome. This provides a contrast with the second phrase of a, where the melody instead accents the 3rd eighth note and the accompaniment emphasizes only the first eighth note of each measure.
I love how the left hand in the last couple measures of a displaces that rhythm by emphasizing the second and third beats, creating a feeling of pleasant surprise that accompanies the resolution. Notice how Ravel concludes in the key of F minor, or iii in the key of Db. This is unusual, as most first A sections in a binary form resolve in the key of V.
Ravel also demonstrates a fresh approach to the age-old V-I cadence. Here, the cadence to F minor comes from a C minor chord, rather than a C dominant chord, pointedly avoiding the leading tone by borrowing from the F harmonic minor mode. He does have a traditional Eb7 to Ab cadence a couple measures earlier, but brings it into the twentieth century by including extensions such as 9ths and Major 7ths to add color and complexity to the chords. One last thing to notice about the a section before moving on is the use of falling 4th intervals in the melody, an important element of Ravel’s melodic language, as well as something that ties together all three movements of Sonatine and gives the entire work cohesiveness.
Here are the first couple phrases of the b section:
On the most basic level, this is a variation on the a theme material, in F harmonic minor instead of Db major, over an F pedal. But the use of grace notes and descending chords over that pedal implies shifting modes, giving the otherwise plainly diatonic melody some tension and variation in color. I believe the modes that the chords suggest are, in order:
Dorian > Melodic Minor > Phrygian > (brief half-step displacement) Mixolydian (brief hint at diminished) > Dorian > Locrian > Dorian > Locrian > Dorian > Locrian > Dorian… then a cadence to Ebminor.
Notice that this cadence doesn’t use an obvious leading tone either (though it is there earlier in the measure):
Instead, the Bb7 chord had a 9th and a b13th, and the Eb minor chord has a 9th as well. The use of these incomplete chords creates a mood of ambiguity and mystery, as well as smoother, subtler transitions.
The next phrase is simply a standard ii-V progression leading to Db, orchestrated beautifully for piano:
It consists of three elements:the melody (now in the key of Bb minor), a counterline based on the Bb minor pentatonic scale, and a strumming, harp-like accompaniment marking the chords. This section also demonstrates Ravel’s technique of taking a melody – which in isolation might seem to be in one key – and harmonizing it in a way in which the notes of the melody actually represent the upper extensions of the chords underneath them. For example, the F in this melody would be the 5th in the key of Bb minor (seemingly the key of the melody) but it is actually the 9th of the Eb minor chord under it, and the 13th of the Ab7 chord after that.
The final part of the first b section comes with a dramatic rise up the piano with the melody in the left hand for the first time in the piece:
Here we see some of the signature elements of Ravel’s language that we’ve already talked about – uses of tensions such as 7ths, 9ths without immediate resolution, and an orchestral approach to the piano with interlocking melody and counterlines. I love the use of clusters and the three bar phrases that somehow feel so natural. As the line reaches its climax, the melody returns to the right hand, and the left hand imitates a harp as it strums up and down inversions of the chords:
In the right hand, the melody is reinforced with octaves and full chords, and I also notice the very pianistic technique of placing just one note in the middle of the octave, often at a perfect interval, which offers support and creates a resonant, bell-like sound. Ravel also uses the rhythmic technique of hemiola – in this case 2-beat groupings overlaid on top of the 3/8 time signature. This creates an unmoored, floating sensation and begins to dissolve the tension that was just built during the climactic crescendo. Ravel continues this as we modulate (briefly) to a seemingly distant key:
Here Ravel is beginning the transition to the A’ section by incorporating some of the main melodic material back into the right hand. Also, here is another example of his technique of switching modes over a pedal. With the melody firmly in the key of C# minor, the bass sustains an E while the chords switch between E7 and C#min6. If we assume we’re in C#minor, those chords suggest the modes of C# phrygian and C# dorian or melodic minor respectively. However, the E pedal adds another level of ambiguity about what key we’re in, and enhances the feeling of being lost. Ravel maintains the E pedal in the entire transition back to the melody, which is a clever and unique twist on the form (we would perhaps expect a pedal on Ab, the V, rather than E, which is the V of A, an entirely different key).
This is one of my absolute favorite moments of the piece. Ravel displays absolute mastery here by making the transition both seamless and somehow unexpected. By bringing material from the next section in early, and maintaing some of the previous section’s material in the next, Ravel interlocks the two sections like puzzle pieces and disguises the exact moment of change. Notice the repeated falling fourths in the melody and the counterline based on the C# minor pentatonic scale. These are elements that continue on in the recapitulation of the melody, albeit slightly changed. Over this ostinato, Ravel places a set of rising minor thirds that each produce their own startling dissonances with the ostinato, and then perfectly resolve into the Db major chord of the recap almost as if by chance.
(Click here for Part 2 of this series)
Also published on Medium.