The Ravel Trio

Trio for piano, violin, and cello
by Maurice Ravel

My nomination for the most colorful piece of white-key music ever written is the first 24 measures of the slow movement, III. Passacaille. It’s not actually on the white keys, but if it were transposed down a major third it would be. Nothing accidental here. Actually, the first 8 bars could also be called black-key music, that is, it uses the pentatonic, or 5-note, scale which can be played on the black keys. As clear as black and white, no?

Listen to it played by Previn/Rosenfeld/Hoffman. You’ll need. Windows users can download it here.

Ravel Trio - Passacaille, 1st page

How does he do it?

Maurice starts off in pure pentatonic scale, but it doesn’t have the usual major feel; it’s acting more like one of the minor modes. Because he’s using only five notes, it’s ambiguous; we could be in any of the three minor-ish modes: Aeolian (minor), Dorian, or Phrygian.

When the cello comes in after eight bars, an A appears for the first time (in the piano part), expanding the harmonic palette of the 5-note scale to 6 notes, but it’s still ambiguous. (Is there a name for this 6-note scale?) We could be in either Aeolian or Phrygian mode; we can’t tell which until he uses a D or a D#.

When the violin comes in eight bars later, the piano expands the 6-note scale to all 7 with a D, and we have our answer: Phrygian mode.

So beautiful. The whole piece is unbelievable. I’ve been in love with it since I first heard it in 1968, and it still feels fresh after 30 years!


I’ve heard many performances and recordings.

I’ve heard a few other recordings that are not good. Be sure to hear one of the recommended recordings before hearing and then buying another. The piano part is fiendishly difficult and many players fudge a lot.

I think I should mention Ravel's Bolero, so 100x more people find this page when searching. this page
1998-01-05 Created
2008-05-05 Modified
2010-12-29 Modified
2011-12-18 Added Marlboro CD