(Click here for Part 1 of this series)
In Part 1 we studied this piece up to the recapitulation, when the original melody from a returns slightly altered. I showed how Ravel creates a seamless transition by swapping material between the two adjacent sections to make the change gradual rather than sudden. Check out the two last measures of b and the first two of a’ side by side:
Notice that even through the key change, Ravel maintains the ostinato based on the C# minor pentatonic scale, but harmonizes it so that it incorporates the Db major chord, leaving the listener in a hazy, shadowy zone between major and minor, between light and dark. Also, the repeating falling fourth motif simply inverts to become the first phrase of the melody.
The important moment of change in the recap, which allows Ravel to resolve the melody in the key of the I rather than iii, occurs a few measures later when Ravel slightly alters the melody and harmony to go to the IV chord rather than vi (Gb rather than Bb minor 7):
The entrance of that Cb note is startling and fresh – it results in the first Db7 chord in the piece, setting the stage for the ultimate resolution of a’ in the key of Db:
Ravel keeps the contour of the melody and the orchestration from the first iteration (outlining the chords with root and guide tones under the melody), but slightly modifies the intervals of the melody so that you get a perfect authentic cadence in the home key, Db. The melody still contains the important falling fourth motif, and the accompaniment mirrors the end of a with it’s rhythmic displacement and whimsical staccatos marking the conclusion of the section.
Resolving a’ in the key of I also prepares us for b’ to also be in the home key, which contributes to the sense of finality and resolution. However, since b is a minor theme, here it appears in i, or C# minor. This ambiguity between major and minor, like in the first few moments of the recap, is part of the mystery and magic of this piece. But b’ is not just a transposition of b from F minor to C# minor. The harmony is significantly more dense and complex, containing some of the most delicious dissonances in the piece.
The first four measures start off similarly to b, with triads and a pedal under the minor key melody that suggest shifting modes (dorian>melodic minor>phrygian>phrygian dominant). The fourth measure is where we begin to dive into darker harmonies – unlike the V/IV chord we saw in the fourth measure of b, this Db7 chord has a b9 and b13 borrowed from the F# harmonic minor mode, implying a resolution to F# minor instead of F#7. Although we do in fact resolve to F#7, the ambiguity between major and minor continues into the next phrase:
Over an F# and C# pedal, and a melody firmly in the key of C# minor, Ravel changes colors simply by shifting two notes: A# and C# to A and C (B#) and back again. This simple, chromatic voiceleading implies two alternating chords: F#9 and F# diminished. (The introduction of the note D a few measures into the phrase fills out this ambiguous diminished chord into a D7 chord or D augmented 6 (German +6). The D7 chord, so distant from the original key of Db major, is especially dissonant over the C# pedal. This creates the opportunity – rare in a tonal context – for the existence of three consecutive half steps in the same chord or scale. Ravel takes advantage of this dissonance by dissolving the melody and harmony into murky, mysterious clusters in the darkest, most ambiguous moment of the piece:
Finally, after the darkest moment of the piece comes the brightest, like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. In a short, triumphant coda Ravel ties together the rising crescendo from b and the sparkling chords from the first few measures of a:
Notice the use of strong bell-like structures – pure octaves and octaves with one note inserted in the right hand, and perfect fifths in the left hand. There is also the stepwise, diatonic motion from the first couple measures of a: Gb – F – Eb – Db. Just like at the beginning of the piece, this motion is accompanied by ringing pedal Db and Ab. Notice that the cadence that concludes the work is a modified plagal cadence, not an authentic cadence. Although instead of resolving to Db from the IV, Gb, Ravel substitutes an Eb minor7 chord, the ii minor. I love that after this triumphant forte conclusion, Ravel adds just one last quiet bell-tone in the left hand – a deep, resonant gong that holds the listener spellbound as it slowly fades to silence.
(Thanks for reading! Check back soon for more in-depth analyses of music from many different genres and eras as well as more of my original tracks and musical musings!)
Also published on Medium.