The Kennedy Center

Le Tombeau de Couperin

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Richard Freed

This work's title is one of several that cannot be—or in any event ought not to be—translated literally. While the literal meaning of the word tombeau is a tomb or burial place, there is a long and honored French tradition in which it designates a piece, or collection of pieces, by a single composer or by several, written in tribute to a departed colleague or master. Dukas, Falla and others, for instance, contributed to a collective Tombeau de Claude Debussy following that composer's death. The tradition goes back to the lutenists who were active before the time of François Couperin (1668-1733), whom Ravel sought to honor in 1914, when he began writing the last of his compositions for piano solo.

Couperin, called Le Grand, by way of distinguishing him from his various kinsmen who earned respect on a somewhat less elevated level, is revered as one of the founders of the French school of keyboard music and as the embodiment of the clarity, grace and refinement that are its characteristic features. Ravel's original intention was to celebrate that tradition in a set of piano pieces in instrumental forms used in Couperin's time—without, however, attempting to imitate Couperin's own style. World War I, which brought about so many changes in thought and custom, altered the nature of Ravel's intentions for this work: it became a far more personal gesture—a set of memorials for personal friends who had died in uniform during the 1914-1918 war on his own soil—as well as an evocation of Couperin's creative spirit.

Ravel had been exempted from military service when he was 20 because of his general physical weakness, and he was 39 when the Great War began, but in 1915 he managed to enlist in an artillery unit as a truck and ambulance driver. He served at the front under the most dangerous conditions until his health deteriorated to the point of his requiring surgery for dysentery in September 1916. His convalescence was prolonged by his depression over the brutality he had witnessed, and by the loss of numerous friends. When he returned to his unfinished Tombeau de Couperin after his discharge from a military hospital in 1917 he completed the work and inscribed each of its six movements to the memory of one of those friends (or, in one instance, to two of them) who had fallen in wartime service. The Prélude he dedicated to Jacques Charlot, the Fugue to Jean Gruppi, the Forlane to Gabriel Deluc, the Rigaudon to the brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, the Menuet to Jean Dreyfus, and the Toccata to the eminent musicologist Joseph de Marliave. The work is thus one of Ravel's most personal creations, as well as the nearest he came to producing a "nationalist" or patriotic statement in his music.

The premiere of the piano suite was given at the Salle Gaveau on April 11, 1919, by Marguerite Long, who was not only a prominent performer of Ravel's works but also the widow of Joseph de Marliave. Later that year Ravel orchestrated portions of the work, and this version was introduced by the Pasdeloup Orchestra under Rhené-Baton on February 28, 1920.

If little of the keyboard character remains in the orchestral suite, that should surprise no one, for it was not Ravel's practice to make mere "transcriptions." Whether orchestrating his own piano pieces or those of Mussorgsky, Debussy or Chabrier, he actually recomposed the music in thoroughly orchestral terms. In this case he chose only four of the original piano suite's six movements, and he altered the order of these movements to make the Rigaudon the finale. The crystalline texture of the keyboard writing is itself preserved in the timbres of the smallish orchestra, with the oboe assigned an important role in the first two movements and various solo winds crisply prominent throughout the sequence.

Two of the movement headings may be a bit less familiar than the others to some listeners. The forlane, or forlana, is of Venetian origin, related to the passamezzo, and is said to have been popular with gondoliers in the early 17th century. The rigaudon, sometimes anglicized to "rigadoon," is a lively dance that apparently originated in Provence at about the same time.

While Ravel clearly focused on dance forms in omitting the Fugue and the concluding Toccata of his original piano suite, he had not thought of having this music accompany actual dancing. A little more than eight months after the premiere of the orchestral suite, however, the three dance movements alone were presented at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in the Ballets Suédois's presentation of a dance work using Ravel's original title, with choreography by Jean Borlin and the company's director, Rolf de Maré. More recently, various composers have orchestrated the Fugue and Toccata so that the original six-movement design might be heard in orchestral dress, and in November 2005 one such "reconstituted" version was performed by the NSO. While such undertakings are not without interest, Ravel's own judgment does not appear to have been seriously challenged. He was, after all, one of the greatest masters of the art of orchestration, and he turned several of his own piano compositions into orchestral ones, but he was as fastidious in deciding which ones were suitable for such treatment as in the scoring itself.