There is a kind of perfection in the works of Maurice Ravel, a thorough and fastidious compositional virtuosity, which prompted Igor Stravinsky to call him the ‘most perfect of Swiss clockmakers.’ Along with this perfection comes an unusually strong sense of artificiality, a sense of music that is measured and constructed by a masked composer. These qualities are, in effect, two sides of the same coin, and neither contains a judgment for or against the music. Nor are they external critical remarks: Ravel himself expressed the desire to make technically perfect pieces which worked almost as automata, or autonomous musical objects.
A description of the Violin Sonata (like many of the often sparsely-written later works) certainly benefits from this ‘objective’ perspective. The sonata is built of three very different movements, whose elements are not so much related to one another as they are simply positioned in such a way as to reflect one another, and so seem to take on life. The first movement has long lines, with occasional mechanistic punctuation, and concludes with a harmonic resolution that is one of the more beautiful sequences in music. The second movement is a (very) French take on turn-of-the-century American jazz style, featuring a sort of cubist banjo simulation, quick positionings of keys, and a fractured close. The final movement, Perpetuum Mobile, is explicitly ‘automatic,’ as it methodically knits together elements from the previous two movements, gathering steam, to create a varied, colorful, and even slightly ecstatic fabric.
Viewed from 2003, a violin sonata might seem an odd choice for the exploration of mechanical aesthetics. There is something impractical about it, like crossing the Atlantic in a dirigible, or using a steam-powered computer. (A violin is an awfully analog machine for demonstrating today’s future.) But, on the other hand, like the Villa Savoie or the 1939 World’s Fair, it now stands beautifully with other indicators of the future-that-might-have-been. Partly as a matter of style and partly as a matter of craft (though certainly not as a matter of fact), there’s still something futuristically beautiful about it.