Le Tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel

The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.

Maurice Ravel

World War I had a transformational effect on Maurice Ravel. At age 39, the dapper, elegant, charming French composer enlisted in the French army in the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment, serving as an ambulance driver and a nurse. (His small stature and physique prevented him from serving in any kind of infantry.) Ghastly scenes of suffering and the loss of friends and his mother during his military service created within him a more serious personality than the “joie de vivre” attitude of his pre-war personality. But his humor was not entirely lost during his service.  He named his ambulance Adelaide, and when he wrote letters during that time, he signed them “Chauffeur Ravel.”

What had begun as a six part piano suite to celebrate the age of François Couperin found its final publication with a front page (designed by Ravel) featuring a draped funeral urn. Each movement was dedicated to a friend who had died in combat. The title Tombeau (meaning tomb) also references a French musical term from the seventeenth century which meant “memorial.”  Traditionally, a tombeau as a tribute work referred only to one person.

Le Tombeau de Couperin actually began before the war. Ravel had started the suite in 1914 with the Forlane, writing to Cipa  Godebski, “I am transcribing a forlane by Couperin. I will see about getting it danced at the Vatican by Mistinguett and Colette Willy in drag.”  (Barbara Kelly: History and Homage.)  A forlane is a northern Italian dance. This transcription appeared in the fourth Concert Royal in the Spring of 1914.

Later that year, Ravel wrote to Roland-Manuel that he was writing a full French suite based on Baroque models, saying, “No, it isn’t what you think. La Marseillaise will not be in it, but it will have a forlane and a gigue, no tango however.”

His piano suite was completed in 1917. In 1919, at the request of his publisher, the composer orchestrated four of the original six movements, omitting the fugue and the toccata. (An orchestral version of the toccata was made by conductor Zoltan Kocsis.)

The four movements are PréludeForlane (which contains the most direct relationship to Couperin), Menuet, and Rigaudon.  This version premiered in Paris on February 28, 1920, performed by the Pasdeloup Orchestra, with Rhené-Baton conducting. Roland Manuel wrote, “This metamorphosis of piano pieces into symphonic works was a game for Ravel, a game played to perfection, so that the transcription outdid the original….It is a work of extreme economy.”(Philip Huscher)

The energetic Prélude moves gracefully in perpetual motion, with sixteenth notes grouped in triplets. It was dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot.  Note the prominent part assigned to the oboe and the winds.

The Forlane (forlana) is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Gabriel DeLuc. It is based on a Venetian passamezzo, said to have been popular with gondoliers in the seventeenth century. It is cast in 6/8 meter and overall maintains a jolly, sparkling mood. Again, note the prominence of the winds.

The Menuet is dedicated to the memory of Jean Dreyfus, the stepson of one of Ravel’s friends. This section retains the stateliness of the baroque minuet, now colored touches of melancholy.

The concluding, vivacious Rigaudon is dedicated to the brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who died on the first day of their service on the front in 1914.  The dance, in 4 duple meter, originated in Provence in the seventeenth century.  It was characterized by hopping steps and became very popular in the French courts.  The title Rigaudon has been attributed to the inventor Rigaud, a French dancing master from Marseille.

Gerard McBurney, composer and musicologist, has explained the seemingly contradictory combination of the war and the behavior of Ravel’s music saying, “Le Tombeau does not talk directly about the war; it talks about eternal values: it talks about beauty and elegance, the things we want to preserve…in other words, the opposite of war.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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