Introduction et Allegro is a brief ten-minute work for harp and a chamber ensemble of flute, clarinet, and string quartet, first performed in Paris on February 22, 1907. As one might expect, given the source of the commission, it features the harp prominently, but the Introduction et Allegro is not, despite what some have claimed, a miniature harp concerto, though it has a cadenza for that instrument near the close. Rather, it is a genuine chamber work that contrasts three quite different sonorities: the smooth sound of woodwinds, the percussive sound of harp, and the warm resonance of strings. In fact, one of the most impressive things about the Introduction et Allegro is the range of different sounds Ravel achieves with this small ensemble—the music seems to shimmer and glow throughout. Ravel asks the strings for tremolos, pizzicatos, harmonics, and sul tasto bowing (over the fingerboard to produce an especially soft sound); the winds are given rapidly-repeated staccatos and swirling arpeggios, while the writing for harp is thoroughly idiomatic, making imaginative use of pedaling and harmonics.
The very opening makes clear Ravel’s intention to contrast these sounds. Woodwinds introduce the haunting opening theme (Ravel marks it expressif), strings answer them, and the harp in turn responds to the strings. The Introduction is quite brief, and at the Allegro the music surges ahead as the harp alone introduces the playful main theme. The music builds to an animated climax and suddenly breaks off for the harp’s cadenza, which is beautifully written for the instrument. Especially effective are its closing moments, where the left hand has the main theme in harmonics while the right hand accompanies with high and very faint glissandos. The other instruments rejoin the harp for the rush to the colorful cadence.