Le tombeau de Couperin
Le tombeau de Couperin is a suite for solo piano by Maurice Ravel, composed between 1914 and 1917, in six movements based on those of a traditional Baroque suite. Each movement is dedicated to the memory of a friend of the composer (or in one case, two brothers) who had died fighting in World War I. Ravel also produced an orchestral version of the work in 1919, although this omitted two of the original movements.
While the word-for-word meaning of the title invites the assumption that the suite is a programmatic work, describing what is seen and felt in a visit to the tomb of Couperin, tombeau is actually a musical term popular in the 17th century and meaning "a piece written as a memorial". The specific Couperin (among a family noted as musicians for about two centuries) that Ravel intended to be evoked, along with the friends, would presumably be François Couperin "the Great" (1668–1733). However, Ravel stated that his intention was never to imitate or pay tribute to Couperin himself, but rather was to pay homage to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite. This is reflected in the structure which imitates a Baroque dance suite. As a preparatory exercise, Ravel had transcribed a forlane (an Italian folk dance) from the fourth suite of Couperin's Concerts royaux, and this piece invokes Ravel's Forlane structurally. The other movements are similarly based on Baroque dances, with the Toccata taking the form of a perpetuum mobile reminiscent of Alessandro Scarlatti. Ravel also revives Baroque practices through his distinctive use of ornamentation and modal harmony. However, neoclassicism also shines through with Ravel's pointedly twentieth-century chromatic melody and piquant harmonies, particularly in the dissonant Forlane.
Despite the devastation Ravel felt both after the death of his mother in 1917 and of his friends in the First World War, Le tombeau de Couperin retains a light-hearted flavour. When criticised for composing a light-hearted, and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one, for such a sombre topic, Ravel replied: "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."
The movements are as follows:
||E minor||in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (transcriber of Ma mère l'oye for piano solo)|
||E minor||in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi (to whose mother Ravel had also dedicated L'heure espagnole)|
||E minor||in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc (a Basque painter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz)|
||C major||in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin (two brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914)|
||G major||in memory of Jean Dreyfus (at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized)|
||E major||in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave (musicologist and husband of Marguerite Long)|
Orchestrations and transcriptions
In 1919 Ravel orchestrated four movements of the work (Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon); this version was premiered in February 1920 by Rhené-Baton and the Pasdeloup Orchestra, and has remained one of his more popular works. Ravel transcribed many of his piano pieces for orchestra, but here he reaches the height of his orchestration skills, turning a very pianistic piece into a superb orchestral suite with very few hints of its origins. The orchestral version clarifies the harmonic language of the suite and brings sharpness to its classical dance rhythms; among the demands it places on the orchestra is the requirement for an oboe soloist of virtuosic skill, as the oboist takes the melody in the Prélude and the Menuet as well as for the pastoral C minor section of the Rigaudon, where it is accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati.
Only a few years after Ravel's own orchestration, Lucien Garban (working under the pseudonym of Roger Branga) produced a version of the piece for 'small orchestra' with a piano-conductor, consisting of the Prélude, Menuet and Rigaudon. He had previously transcribed the full suite for piano four hands in 1919.
Several other composers have since created orchestrations of those two movements which Ravel omitted, the Fugue and the Toccata. David Diamond has orchestrated the second movement Fugue, while the Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis has produced his own version of both the Fugue and the Toccata. However, here, the Toccata, scored for a very large orchestra, goes far beyond the limits of Ravel's own, small orchestra, and the Fugue is set for winds only. Another instrumentation of Fugue and Toccata by pianist Michael Round was recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy (Exton, 2003): the score is published (as two separate titles, 'Fugue' and 'Toccata') by Edwin F. Kalmus. Round's version of the Toccata adds percussion, requiring up to five players. Kalmus omitted the percussion parts from the published score so as to exactly match the orchestration of the rest of the suite, but these parts are available separately, directly from the orchestrator. In 2013 the British composer Kenneth Hesketh orchestrated the Fugue and Toccata for the exact orchestration of the original four-movement orchestral suite. The first performance was given by the Goettingen Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller. The scores are available from Schott Music, London.
- Bricard, Nancy. 'About the Music', in Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 2003), p. 14.
- Ravel, Maurice (Republished 2001). Le tombeau de Couperin and Valses nobles et sentimentales in Full Score. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486418987. Check date values in:
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- "Le tombeau de Couperin" at Maurice Ravel website
- Bricard, Nancy. 'Foreword', in Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 2003), p. 1.
- Arbie Orenstein, Ravel, man and musician. (New York: Dover Publications, 1991) p.234.
- Gene Tyranny, "Blue". "Le tombeau de Couperin, for orchestra". AllMusic.com. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
- Listen to "Le tombeau de Couperin". Free complete recording at the Piano Society.
- Le tombeau de Couperin: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- "Le tombeau de Couperin" at Maurice Ravel Frontispice
- Youtube: Orchestration of the Fugue and Toccata by Jack M. Jarrett, 1982, accessed 6 January 2010
- Youtube: Jazz arrangement of the Prelude played in 2010 by Tamir Hendelman (piano), Marco Panascia (bass), Lewis Nash (drums), accessed 11 December 2010
- Listen to Toccata from "Le tombeau de Couperin" orchestrated by Kenneth Hesketh.