In the year that we are celebrating the end of WWI (1914-1918, it is relevant to remember the artists who participated and some of whom perished in ‘the war to end all wars’ .
This is an invitation to listen to and to appreciate Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed for piano between 1914 and 1917, and premiered in 1919. Tombeau was a form of memorial composition used by French composers of the Baroque period as a way of paying tribute to a prominent personality or respected musician colleague and which was rediscovered and revived by a number of twentieth century composers. In Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel has a double purpose: an homage to the French composers of that period and in particular, François Couperin, and an in memoriam to a number of his friends who perished in the great war.
During the period that he is composing the suite, Ravel also serves as an ambulance driver, endures health problems resulting from constant exposure to danger, and, most tragically, suffers the loss of his mother, all this taking a severe toll on his health. It is undoubtedly a very dramatic and difficult time in his life.
In spite of everything, he composes lively and playful music, perhaps due to his Basque roots and relation to Spain. He writes colourful, childlike, playful sounds flowing from movement to movement, reminding us of the brighter side of life and its happier moments (but nonetheless, with a complex demanding and unique technical demands for even the most able pianist). This is in sharp contrast with the forms that many other composers of his time were using, mainly dramatic pieces with strong, war-like sounds. Ravel wanted to celebrate his friends’ lives and his memories of them positively. When he was criticised for the resulting music not being sombre and dramatic, he replied: “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”.
Ravel embodies the impressionist style with an admixture of neoclassical features ( although he disliked being labelled an impressionist.) He works on the edge of tonal harmony, adding ostinato motives and harsh dissonances. The piece resembles a Baroque dance suite with six movements:
Prelude: to the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot who had transcribed some of Ravel’s music for solo piano at the composer’s publishers.
Fugue: to the memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi, whose mother helped Ravel get his comic opera L’heure Espagnole performed.
Forlane: to the memory of Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a Basque painter whom Ravel had met in a small town in the Pyrenees.
Rigaudon: to the memory of the brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, friends of Ravel’s family; they were killed with the same shell on their first day at the front.
Menuet: to the memory of Jean Dreyfus; Ravel recovered at the Dreyfus family home after being relieved from the army due to poor health and after the death of his mother.
Toccata: to the memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave, who died at the start of the war. He was a musicologist and the husband of Ravel’s favourite pianist Marguerite Long, who premièred ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ on the 11th of April 1919.