Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

JOSEPH MAURICE RAVEL

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure, near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: Ravel began to write what he originally called a Suite française for piano in July 1914. World War I interrupted his work, and he did not return to this project, now titled Le Tombeau de Couperin, until June 1917. He completed the work that November. Ravel orchestrated four movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1919, after the piano version premiere

WORLD PREMIERE: In its four-movement orchestral version, it was first played on February 28, 1920, with Rhené-Baton conducting the Pasdeloup Orchestra of Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1928. Ravel himself conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2016. Pablo Heras-Casado conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY World War I encompassed Ravel’s psyche almost entirely, and for a while it brought his creativity to a standstill. He had been exempted from military service some years before due to his diminutive stature and feather-light weight (five-foot-three and 108 pounds). When war was declared, in 1914, he nonetheless hoped to train to become a pilot in the French Air Force, but he was rejected due to fragile health— decisively so once military physicians diagnosed a heart condition. He managed to serve as a medical assistant, however, and in March 1916 he headed to the front lines at Verdun as a driver in the Army Motor Transport Corps. His eagerness to serve may have exceeded his skill behind the wheel, as his correspondence reveals several incidents of one-car fender-benders.

After six months he fell ill with dysentery and was sent back to Paris to convalesce. While he was there his mother passed away, in January 1917, after which he sank into deep depression. He returned to his military assignment only briefly before succumbing to another breakdown, at which point the army discharged him for good. He spent the remaining months of the War in a village in Normandy, gradually recouping his creative energies, returning to some projects that had occupied him prior to the War, and embarking on some new ones.

His suite Le Tombeau de Couperin embraced that period of his life. When Ravel sketched it, he reported in a letter to his pupil Roland-Manuel (on October 1, 1914): “I’m beginning … a French Suite—no, it’s not what you think—the Marseillaise doesn’t come into it at all but there’ll be a forlane and a jig; not a tango, though.” In his Autobiographical Sketch, penned in 1929 as a promotional piece for the Aeolian Company, Ravel said of Le Tombeau de Couperin, “The homage is directed less in fact to Couperin himself than to French music of the eighteenth century.” Nonetheless, he did gear up for the project by making a piano transcription of a forlane from the fourth of the Concerts royaux of François Couperin, a forlane being a lively Venetian folk dance that became popular, in a stylized form, in French courts.

Couperin (1668-1733) was indeed an emblem of the distinctive tradition of French music. This past November the musical world marked the 350th anniversary of the birth of this figure, who during the reign of Louis XIV held the title of Organiste du roi (King’s Organist) and in 1717, two years after that monarch’s death, was elevated to Ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin (Musician-in-Ordinary as Harpsichordist for the King’s Chamber Music), the king at that point being the seven-year old Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV. Although Couperin wrote important sacred works, organ compositions, and chamber music, he is most famous for his harpsichord oeuvre, which comprises some 230 pieces published in four collections and an instructional treatise from 1713 through 1730. These are marked by fanciful imagination, wry wit (or sometimes somber introspection), meticulous craftsmanship, and, above all, clarity—which is how one might also describe Ravel’s keyboard works.

Ravel’s suite initially took the form of six pieces for solo piano. By the time he finished it, what had begun as a celebration of French musical tradition was transformed into another sort of commemoration, as its movements were dedicated to various friends lost in combat during the War. (The cover of the original piano edition included a drawing, by Ravel himself, of a memorial drapery and a funerary urn.) In June 1919, he selected four of the suite’s movements for orchestral arrangements, dropping the original second and sixth movements (a fugue and a toccata, respectively) and re-ordering those that remained. It would be hard to argue that the piano originals come close to making the effect of the crystalline orchestral versions, in which, as Roland-Manuel observed, “strict necessity governs every move” and “with extreme economy and simplicity Ravel obtains translucence and variety of color throughout the whole work.” Ravel’s appreciation for textural clarity is made clear through an anecdote recounted in a radio interview by the composer and conductor Manuel Rosenthal, who spent time as a pupil of Ravel’s:

One day he was speaking to me in glowing terms about Puccini. And being the silly, impertinent young man I was, I started to sneer. At that Ravel flew into a towering rage, locked us both into his little studio at Monfort l’Amaury and sat down at the piano. He then played me the whole of Tosca from memory, stopping about fifty times on the way to ask: “Have you anything to complain of about that passage? Look how good the harmony is, how he respects the form, what a clever, original, and interesting modulation there is in that tune.” Finally he took down the score to show me how perfect the orchestration is. He said, “This is exactly what I did with Le Tombeau de Couperin: this economy of means by which two solo instruments in Puccini’s orchestra produce such an impact—that is the mark of a great artist.”

THE MUSIC Ravel begins with a rapid Prélude, a perpetual-motion piece that indeed evokes the harpsichord music of Couperin (or perhaps Scarlatti), though with harmonies that are of Ravel’s time rather than of theirs. A scurrying motif of ornamental mien dominates the movement, first given out on the oboe, then bantered about with clarinets, English horn, and other winds before the strings get their moment with it.

The Forlane follows, a movement of moderate tempo (Allegretto)—a completely different piece from the one Ravel had transcribed from Couperin. In the orchestral version, it usually seems inhabited by a skipping sensation, as if the dancer really would rather be hopping along a bit quicker. This became a topic in one of a series of French Radio broadcasts in 1950, when pianist Vlado Perlemuter played Ravel’s keyboard works and then discussed them with the series’ producer, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange:

Jourdan-Morhange: The orchestral version has always disappointed me.

Perlemuter: Why? The orchestration is delightful!

Jourdan-Morhange: From the lesser to the greatest conductor, not one achieves the balanced rhythm of the Forlane. It’s always fast and above all, skipping along.

Perlemuter: But Ravel did not put any dot on his score, simply a slur … It is, in fact, the piece in the Tombeau which most evokes the past, with its pastel tones and archaic cadences …

Perlemuter was right; in the piano version, Ravel places slurs above long-spanning phrases, rendering them smooth and supple. But in the orchestral score, those slurs disappear. Short rests, staccato marks, and accents are inserted. The halting quality to which Jourdan-Morhange objected, and which is indeed absent from the original piano setting, reflects the pains Ravel took in re-envisioning the piece for orchestra.

The oboe again plays a leading role in the Menuet, its tart ornaments adding a flavor that is Couperinesque indeed. For a contrasting middle section, Ravel presents a musette, a rustic dance underscored by a drone, like on a bagpipe. He concludes with an effervescent Rigaudon, again with a contrasting middle section that, as in the Menuet, has a pastoral quality. —James M. Keller