The second movement of Maurice Ravel's second Violin Sonata (1922-1927) is titled Blues (example performance). Wikipedia claims it is inspired by jazz and blues music, and that Ravel had first-hand knowledge of these styles e.g. from going to night clubs in New York with George Gershwin.

The violin part uses a lot of slow glissando's between adjacent notes, which vaguely resemble the bends that blues guitarists would do, and the piano part has a ragtime-style rhythm, but other than that, I don't hear much of a blues influence in it.

Does Ravel's Blues actually exhibit any of the more obvious aspects of blues — pentatonic scales, blue notes, micro-bends, dominant seventh chords, repeating a melody over the I and IV chord, the V-IV-I turn-around, 12-bar structure — in any meaningful way?

(And if it doesn't, is that because of a lack of understanding of the blues, or a reluctance to stray too far from the classical idiom, or the same attitude of the 19th-century "exoticism" craze which was far from authentic in its depiction of the music of the Orient and the Far East?)

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    I'm unfamiliar with that piece, but while today we think of Blues of that era as solo guitar players, with slides and such, but it was more popularly women singers backed by jazz bands, so what you think of as bluesy won't necessarily be what Ravel did, and it can be limited by what the musicians could play and audiences could accept. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 3:34
  • I've listened to a few versions (thank you, I didn't know Ravel beyond Bolero and quite like that), and I really think you should adjust your Blues expectations to Bessie Smith. And be aware that Ravel learned from hearing W.C. Handy, who was a trained musician outside the folk blues, so an interpretation of an interpretation of the blues. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 6:17
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    @DaveJacoby ...you mean the blues isn't about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil? Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 14:57
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    @DaveJacoby Just gotta put in a word for my favorite composer... Ravel himself called Bolero "the only piece of music without any ideas" and I've always compared its popularity to if the Beatles were best known for "Yellow Submarine". In my opinion, there is a summit, and Maurice Ravel and Jimi Hendrix stand alone on it in terms of musical imagination. Look up "Jeux D'eaux" on YouTube, and be prepared to have your mind blown. Then start working your way through the rest of the solo piano pieces. Ravel also used blues licks in the Piano Concerto in G, btw.
    – John Smith
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 11:07
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    From a friend who is not active on the Stack Exchange sites: "The terms "blues" and "jazz" were originally used more-or-less interchangeably, for the folk music of Black American men and women. Song collectors like Alan Lomax didn't distinguish between them, or not in the way we would today. For another example of exoticism in French music, see Tzigane ("gypsy music") by Ravel in Wikipedia."
    – Willeke
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 12:33

2 Answers 2


How bluesy is Ravel's Blues actually?

I would say enough to justify putting "blues" in the title of a violin sonata.

A little history background.

WC Handy published the "first blues" music in 1912 with Memphis Blues. The style is basically ragtime in rhythm and piano texture and uses chromatic approach tones (like G# and B natural ascending to A and C of an F major chord) and dominant seventh chords on roots other than V.

Stravinsky's Rites of Spring was first performed in 1913. That's a seminal work of modernism and dissonance.

Ravel's Violin Sonata No.2 is dated 1923-7.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is from 1924.

All of that is from before musicians like Muddy Waters or BB King were born or were still kids.

We need to understand what "blues" meant at the time for Ravel. To a listener today the blues from that time would probably be labeled "ragtime."

The IMSLP copy of the score is dated 1927 and has "blues" printed on the second movement. So clearly Ravel had some intension of the music being bluesy.

But to what extent? What does the music itself tell us? Notice how the movement opens. The key signature of the violin is one sharp and the piano is four flats. Neither is a transposition instrument. When the piano first enters the violin plays pizzicato G major chords while the piano outlines an Ab major chord. After the intro the violin changes to a key signature of four flats, but then the piano takes over play the G major chords against Ab. It seems noteworthy the movements starts with a kind of modern, polytonal harmony. Regardless of other bluesy elements in the movement it is not following the style of early blues like Memphis Blues.

...is that because of a lack of understanding of the blues...

I don't think so. If Ravel wanted to just write something like Memphis Blues, he could have done so. But composers like Ravel were more "referencing the blues" rather than cranking out genre pieces. At the risk of sounding pretentious it's the difference between "low art" and "high art." Low art being stuff like a set of waltzes or rags that follow the template of a genre, usually for some real social function. Basically songs and dances that people actually danced to. High art is stuff like sonatas and fugues. Music meant to be listened to and appreciated on some intellectual level for the way themes are handled and developed musically.

Other composers made music like Ravel's with references to blues and jazz. Things like Stravinsky's Ragtime, Bartok's Contrasts, Gershwin's Preludes, Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk, etc. Some of these works are closer to the song/dance forms (IMO Gershwin's preludes and Debussy's cakewalk) while others are more in the intellectual concert music vein. It's interesting how some like Gershwin aimed high seeking recognition as "serious" composers while others wanted to incorporate popular forms in concert forms.

...or the same attitude of the 19th-century "exoticism" craze which was far from authentic

Of course "authenticity" is the real heart of this question. But what is going to be called authentic blues? If you go back before Memphis Blues you get to stuff like field hollers. Call and response folk music with blue notes. When WC Handy set those elements into a basic ragtime style how is that any more or less authentic an appropriation than Ravel setting them within a modernistic violin sonata?

Clearly Ravel's sonata is a high art concert piece and not song or dance. But calling it inauthentic is a tricky business, because it seems to arbitrarily allow certain types of musical appropriation while excluding others.

  • We must've been writing at the same time. Sorry for any overlaps. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 19:01
  • I've read it now. I hope mine complements yours. No major discrepancies anyway! +1 Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 19:07
  • You hit the points I hit in the comments, much deeper and with necessary context. +1 Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 20:45

TL;DR [Long rambling thing about blues, Paris and Ravel's Violin Sonata.]

Bessie Smith's first record was released in 1923, the year Ravel started work on the violin sonata. That's 20 years after W.C. Handy - who was mostly self-taught btw - heard the guy in the Mississippi Delta railway station playing a guitar with a knife as a bottle-neck and singing each line three times.

Handy's St.Louis Blues was published in 1914. Its chorus is in the form of a 12-bar blues but it sounds like a military band playing fairground music. When Bessie Smith recorded it (initially in a film of 1929) she probably prevented it from falling into oblivion. She makes his arrangement of it sound trite. (Btw, it's possible that Handy had actually heard the song being sung before he sat down and 'wrote' it.)

Although Auric may have been the first 'classical' composer to flatten his thirds and sevenths (Huit Poèmes de Cocteau, 1918), Milhaud probably heard this very 'blues' (it's an all-white American band) being played in London in 1920. He then went and sought out authentic African-American jazz in Harlem. Gershwin took Ravel to Harlem too. And Ravel took himself to New Orleans.

On his return to Paris, Milhaud may have played his friends some of "the Black Swan records I had purchased in a little shop in Harlem, which I never wearied of playing over and over, on a little portable phonograph shaped like a camera." They were certainly all excited at whatever they'd heard, but none of them thought they were writing anything other than Western art-music!

You ask if the sonata's second movement exhibits "pentatonic scales, blue notes, micro-bends, dominant seventh chords, repeating a melody over the I and IV chord, the V-IV-I turn-around, 12-bar structure — in any meaningful way." No, Ravel wasn't interested in many of those. (He may not even have heard them: we don't know exactly what the music was that influenced him.) Clearly he was interested in using the expressive qualities of blue notes and bends. He also gets each instrument to imitate a banjo. He doesn't make it opulent. It sounds rather impoverished. To my ears it is expressive. (Even if the musicians on your recording have trouble staying together at 4'14"!)

I can't think of a composer who has used elements of jazz or blues disrespectfully, and I think the relationship between classical and jazz musicians has mostly been one of mutual respect. Woody Herman commissioned Stravinsky to write the Ebony Concerto. Chick Corea cited Bartók as a major influence. A jazz sax-player I know is a dab hand at Copland's clarinet concerto...

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    The cross fertilization between these styles is so interesting. Early 20th century is my favorite artistic period, for all art. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 20:27
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    Mine too. So much going on, without even mentioning Neo-Classicism, 2nd Viennese School, Weill, Jonny Spielt Auf, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, polytonality, Poulenc, Italy!... Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 23:27
  • Let's not forget Glenn Gould, moving effortlessly between Bach and the most modern of modernism, or the great Bill Evans, whose playing was deeply informed by classical study and early 20th c composers.
    – John Smith
    Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 11:13

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