Le tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel

Le tombeau de Couperin

M. 68

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

In this extraordinary work, which is conceived as a Baroque suite, Ravel pays homage to the rich tradition of French Baroque music for the harpsichord, as exemplified by the works of François Couperin. It was certainly not Ravel's intention to imitate Couperin, or any other Baroque composer; instead, he included elements of Baroque style without altering his own unique style. While Ravel's pianism is unmistakably modern, his refined, meticulous approach to the keyboard clearly shows an affinity with the French Baroque masters. However, the word "tomb" in the title also had a deeper personal significance for Ravel, who dedicated each movement of the suite to a friend who died World War I. The manuscript is dated 1914-1917, so it is difficult to determine if any significant portions of the work were written before the war. At any rate, Ravel intended the composition as a memorial to his friends; while there are moments of lightness and humor in this music, which prompted some to criticize the composer's supposedly irreverent attitude toward death, beneath the flashes of wit one hears profound melancholy tones in the returning soldier's tribute to his fallen comrades. Dedicated to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, who worked for Ravel's publisher Durand, the Prélude is a veritable whirlpool of sound, the sensation of fluidity created by elegantly executed triplet figurations. A triplet figure also appears in the noble, marmoreal Fugue, dedicated to Lieutenant Jean Cruppi, whose mother had played an important role in the production of L'Heure espagnole. Deceptively simple, this movement is a demanding polyphonic construction which Ravel executes with his characteristically brilliant nonchalance. The Forlane, the French variant of an old Italian dance, bears a dedication to Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a friend from St-Jean-de-Luz, in Ravel's native Basque region. As Vladimir Jankélévitch remarked, this noble and melancholy movement is like a lullaby. However, there is something slightly jarring and manic in this lullaby, and the manic energy turns into a nervous -- but infinitely charming -- narrative, the Rigaudon. Dedicated to Ravel's St-Jean-de-Luz friends Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, two brothers who were killed by the same shell on their first day of combat, the Rigaudon is named after an ancient Provençal dance. This movement opens with a poignant figuration, which, recurring with the power of an irresistible fixation, defines the identity of the entire piece. Ravel dedicated the Menuet to Jean Dreyfus, step-brother of the composer and critic Roland-Manuel. Unfolding with the calm pace of an unassuming narrative, this movement, despite its apparently peaceful simplicity, unveils, if only for a moment, feelings of mournful foreboding. The final movement, Toccata is dedicated to Captain Joseph de Marliave, husband of Marguerite Long and devoted admirer of Fauré's music. In this movement, the half-hidden disquietude of the entire composition finally comes to the fore. While the percussive, obsessively recurring figurations may define this movement as a composition dominated by technical demands, there are, trapped in a carapace of busy, hammering gestures, enchanting moments of quiet lyricism. Marguerite Long gave the first performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1919; that year, Ravel completed his brilliant orchestration of the Prelude, Forlane, Minuet, and Rigaudon, adding splendid orchestral color to these exquisite musical creations.

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