Franck Chevalier, viola player of the Quatuor Diotima, gives advice on how to approach the most celebrated French additions to the quartet repertoire
1. Get into the spirit of the times
Visit the Musée D’Orsay to see Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral. These are all painted at different times of the day and at different times of the year, and the colours in the paintings help explain the sense of colour in Ravel’s writing. French music from the beginning of the century is not about saying something (which is related to the German tradition), but about suggesting something, about giving an impression.
2. Technique considerations
Technique here is important and we would recommend reading Lucien Capet’s violin method, especially on the use of the bow. Nowadays with globalisation, the tendency is to play everything with the same kind of technique, which is fast, Brahms’s sostenuto-sustained vibrato. But, at the time of Ravel, the French violin school was pretty different, in particular the use of the wrist to give more sophisticated articulation and more air to the sound.
3. Approach Ravel with a good sense of humour
Humour is very important in Ravel and there is lots and lots of humour in the quartet so don’t take it too seriously. Ravel loved the English and being in England because of their sense of humour. So maybe take a holiday in the UK!
4. Be prepared for the harmony to move in mysterious ways
Intonation is one of the biggest hurdles when playing Debussy and Ravel’s quartets. Harmony in Debussy and Ravel is very specific and different from usual. I would recommend doing an analysis (not too long!) of the harmonic language used, to get familiar with all the strange modulations and chords, and to make sure that everything is understood properly. Without doing that, one can be easily mistaken, and totally loose the ‘right’ intonation.
5. Debussy and Ravel were trying to be different
Know the German tradition of string quartet writing well, in order to better understand how Ravel and Debussy tried hard to escape from this dominant model. French musicians had at this period both a fascination and repulsion to German music. Paris was a sort of counter-power to German music, and attracted composers like Bartók, Stravinsky, Szymanowski and all the composers who were looking for something different. A concrete way to illustrate this point is to listen, while playing, on how you transform the sound, and avoid theatrical, dramatic, or rhetorical transitions.
6. Not all mutes are the same
This is a very important point. The rubber mutes we use today loose too much sound, which is wrong for the feel and effect of the music. During the time of Debussy and Ravel, mutes were made out of iron, like many things during the industrial revolution. I have a very beautiful iron mute that I use, which makes for a much less suffocated sound. Our advice is to try to find another mute made of iron or wood – just not a rubber one.
7. Folk impressions
Another country to visit, or at least to know more about, in order to play this kind of music, would be Spain. France, for some reason, does not have a strong folk music tradition. That’s why composers like Debussy or Ravel use folk music from other countries, mainly from Spain. You have to know flamenco guitar to play the second movement of Ravel’s quartet! But of course, it is Spanish music seen from a Parisian perspective.
8. Pizzicato masterclass
Take lessons with a double bass player! In general, violinists, violists and cellists are not very good with pizzicato techniques. We hardly never learn how to do it, but double bass players do. And here it is essential to know how to produce all sort of different pizzicatos.
9. Be creative
And finally, don’t listen too much to those arrogant French musicians like me! Make your own way with this music, and invent new rules for its interpretation!