Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin
Le Tombeau de Couperin is a suite for solo piano by Maurice Ravel, composed between 1914 and 1917. The piece is 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.
The word tombeau in the title is a musical term popular from the 17th century, meaning “a piece written as a memorial”. The specific Couperin, among a family noted as musicians for about two centuries, that Ravel intended to evoke is thought to be François Couperin “the Great” (1668–1733). Ravel stated that his intention was to pay homage more generally to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite, not necessarily to imitate or pay tribute to Couperin himself in particular. This is reflected in the piece’s 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 forms, 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. Neoclassicism also shines through with Ravel’s pointedly twentieth-century chromatic melody and piquant harmonies, particularly in the dissonant Forlane.
Written after the death of Ravel’s mother in 1917 and of friends in the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin is a light-hearted, and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one which Ravel explained in response to criticism saying: “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
The first performance of the original piano version was given on 11 April 1919 by Marguerite Long, in the Salle Gaveau in Paris. Long was the widow of Joseph de Marliave, to whom the last movement of the piece, the Toccata, is dedicated.