Ravel “Le tombeau de Couperin”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Le tombeau de Couperin (1918)

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 affected Ravel as much as most young men of the time. Ravel was already thirty-nine, but he desperately wanted to fight for his country. His lifelong frailty eliminated any possibility of serving in the infantry, but he was able to enlist as a truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment. This job was still dangerous, and Ravel came close to loosing his life on several occasions, while many of his colleagues were not so lucky. Not surprisingly, Ravel’s compositional life halted completely. But upon his return in 1917, he completed a solo piano work he had begun sketching in 1814. It was originally titled a Suite français, but with the gain of years surrounded by death, Ravel retitled the work Le tombeau de Couperin.

A tombeau is a musical work composed to commemorate the death of an individual–a “musical tombstone,” if you will. The reference to François Couperin does not indicate any intention on Ravel’s part to imitate Couperin per se, but instead evokes certain elements of the French Baroque keyboard suite, most notably in the structure of a dance for each movement.

The original piano piece had six movements, each dedicated to friends who died in World War I. Ravel orchestrated only the four for the suite performed tonight:

I. Prélude, “to the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot,” the godson of Ravel’s publisher and wrote the piano transcriptions to Ravel’s Menuet sur le nom de Haydn and Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Suite).

The prelude is a perpetual motion of sixteenth notes much like Bach’s famous prelude to the solo violin Partita No. 3, but with more fluidity and smoothness. The opening of the movement begins with an orchestrational device that will prove to be consistent throughout the piece–a special emphasis on the solo oboe (the work is well-known among musicians for its dazzling oboe lines!).

II. Forlane, “to the memory of Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc,” a painter Ravel admired.

The forlane is a fast dance in 6/8, and actually hails from the extreme northeastern region of Italy. Ravel transcribed one of Couperin’s own forlanes in preparation for this movement.

III. Menuet, “to the memory of Jean Dreyfus,” the stepson of one of Ravel’s mother figures. Ravel recuperated at the Dreyfus family home after his demobilization and actually finished the piano version of this work at their house, and Jean died around this time.

The Baroque menuet was a stately, aristocratic dance in 3/4 time. Ravel’s version could be understood as a post-World War I interpretation with its beautiful, slightly melancholy elegance.

IV. Rigaudon, “to the memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin,” two brothers of the Gaudin family and lifelong friends of Ravel’s. They were killed by the same shell on the first day of their arrival at the front in 1914.

The Rigaudon, a traditional French dance that was later adapted for court, is by nature lively. This energetic, C major movement might surprise one who read the dedication first, but Ravel was once quoted as having a harsh reply for a critic who believed this work was not somber enough for the subject matter–“Les morts sont assez tristes dans leur silence eternel,” that is, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.” There is a place for a light heart, even in mourning.

[Back to the concert program]

~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
for permission to republish, contact theexplicatrix@gmail.com

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