There was more to Ravel than Bolero

From 1994 to 2003 I played the cello for Windsor and Maidenhead Symphony Orchestra (WMSO). As with Rock Chorus, I’d initially gone along to meet people, because I didn’t know anyone when we moved down to Slough from Liverpool.

In 1998, my sister was living in London and wanted to do some orchestral playing, so I suggested she join me and play her violin in the WMSO. She did just that, coming down on the train every week for our rehearsals, before moving to live in France a couple of years later.

Most orchestras retire to the pub after rehearsing and we were no exception, patronising an ancient Tudor place, all low beams and rough wooden tables, tucked away down a narrow country lane. It was the antithesis of a chain pub and sold lovely beer.

One evening, my sister decided to come for a drink before catching the train home and I introduced her to a couple of people I vaguely knew who were our age, Andrew and Marcus. After some initial small talk, the conversation, as you might expect, turned to music and we all said how much we liked chamber music. Realising that there were two vioinists, a cellist and viola player seated round the table, the idea to form a quartet was born. We took it in turns to host our rehearsals once a week and cook dinner for the others, naturally providing some all important liquid refreshment too!

As with choir, those meetings became the highlight of my week, not least because at that time my husband’s job meant he constantly travelled around Europe and back and forth to New York, so I was on my own a lot with only the TV for company. Also, we were all in our late 20s and had that sparkle and zest for life that often only comes with youth and liked one another from the very first.

Andrew was a budding entrepreneur, running his own pharmaceutical consultancy, Marcus worked in IT, my sister flitted from job to job before deciding to become a TEFL teacher like me and undergo some training and I was working for a local language company teaching people business English and occasionally beginner-level Japanese.

Inevitably, with a mix of two men and two women, there was a great deal of harmless flirting and banter whenever we met but this made what could’ve been a rather serious session of music making, into one that was light-hearted and much more fun. It was always pleasure before rehearsing: eating, drinking and conversation first, then playing music.

In our quartet, there was no rivalry between the violin players, which is so common and often detrimental to group dynamics. They were equally as good technically and would swap between violin 1 and violin 2 as they felt like it. My sister and I being far more experienced at chamber music than the others, would lead the rehearsals at first, advising Andrew and Marcus of the techniques of playing in a small group; the most important being to watch and listen to one another. As time passed, we gelled into a proper group who could play reasonably well and were all firm friends.

So where does Ravel’s string quartet come into this? As so often with me, it was hearing music on the radio that triggered all these memories. A couple of weeks ago it was the Easter break and my whole family had congregated down in Pembroke Dock for a week’s holiday.

One morning, as I was washing up after breakfast the sound of a string quartet playing on the radio gradually penetrated my usual early morning thoughts of: “Which beach are we going to today?” and “Is there any more coffee?” I stood still listening, thinking: “What’s that music, it’s so familiar?”

I walked into the dining room where my sister was reading the newspaper.”Is that Ravel’s quartet they’re playing?” I asked her.

She listened for a moment, “I’m not sure” she said, “it’s been such a long time.”

The more I listened though, the more I was certain that it was Ravel because it’s the one quartet that we worked exceptionally hard at. I didn’t need to wait for the presenter’s announcement at the end of the piece to know.

Like many people, I had no idea that Ravel had written a string quartet. Most people only know his Bolero. Think of Sarajevo in 1984 and Torvill and Dean’s ice skating gold at the Winter Olympics. Yes, that piece, with the most boring cello part in the whole of existence!

Before our very first quartet rehearsal, I’d volunteered to go to Reading Library and get some music out, as none of us had any. Among the usual copies of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart was Ravel. Intrigued, I flicked through the different parts and noted that though technically a challenge in places it wasn’t impossible and all four parts had an equal share of the tune. I was sold and took the music out on loan and bought a recording of it too.

We weren’t at all sure of this piece after playing through the first movement during our rehearsal though; it was so different to the composers we were used to. But the lyrical nature of the music, with its theme that is repeated later in the the quartet had got under our skin and we all decided that it was worth learning properly. Over time, the very fact that it was so different to anything else in our repertoire added to its appeal and it became one of our favourites.

Our quartet playing was very largely for our own pleasure but we did play in public a few times. One time my dad got us a gig at a garden party. My parents were away for the weekend, so we drove over to their house in Kent and all stayed over, so we could socialise with one another properly. As we were providing background music, it was largely up to us what we played. We chose movements from various quartets and some arrangements of well-known classical pieces too, that Dad had lent me.

Towards the end of the gig, our chair legs sinking into the lawn and clothes pegs battling to hold the music on the stands due to the wind, we looked at one another and the unspoken message was, “enough of pleasing the guests who’re all drunk and not listening, lets play Ravel” and launched into the first movement. We did convert somebody else to our love of this quartet that afternoon though. As we finished there was some applause and a fellow musician came over to ask what we were playing. I showed him the music and he thanked me and told me we played it well.

My one great wish is to get back to quartet playing. It was never my intention to stop playing the cello but a series of injuries and becoming a mother put an end to it. I have started playing again but not regularly yet, it’s mainly to help my son with his violin practice. Once my fingers have re-learnt where the notes are and my ability to read ahead has improved along with my counting, I’ll be confident enough to organise a group to play with. And one day, you can be sure I’ll play Ravel again.


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