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Le tombeau de Couperin

composer
begun in the summer of 1914; piano version published in 1917; originally envisaged as a Suite française; first performed by Marguerite Long on 11 April 1919; four-movement orchestral suite completed the same year

 
Composers do not, in general, make good soldiers. The practice and theory of one seems inimical to the other: something to do, perhaps, with obeying orders and submitting to the yoke of teamwork rather than the draw of solitary invention and endeavour; also and more debatably to the heightened sensitivity of the artistic temperament that renders it unsuited to the gore and horror of the battlefield. It’s an anomaly of history that, for half a century (roughly 1895-1945), pushed composers and other sensitive souls into the arena of war, when technology had not matched the reach of geopolitical conflict. The music composed with slaughter fresh in the mind’s eye and ear, therefore, may also have anomalous qualities.

Ravel was exempted from conscription on health grounds, but he was desperate to serve his country in the Great War. In March 1916—at the age of 40—he chose to serve at the Front as a truck and ambulance driver. In September 1916 he became ill with dysentery and in January 1917 while he was recuperating in Paris his mother died suddenly. In November that year he completed a suite for piano, and dedicated each of the six movements to the memory of a friend lost in battle. The suite was first performed in April 1919, and three months later he re-composed four of the six movements for chamber orchestra.

It was never Ravel’s way, though, to wear the scars of grief and depression on the sleeve of his music. Instead they are sublimated within antique forms: the Baroque dance suite, and the idea of a musical Tombeau, or memorial, with which French composers had remembered their friends, teachers and heroes for four centuries and more. Ravel did not presume to trespass on the music of François Couperin (1688-1733), but chose instead to honour the spirit, the clarity and the grace of his work in a personal tribute, inevitably coloured by nationalist sentiment, of surpassing gentleness and delicacy. This character and the exquisite avoidance of irony in its revival of old and formal dance rhythms, make the suite diametrically opposed to Ravel’s other ‘war’ work, the opulent and savage parody of waltz form, La valse. Only at the unlikely yet powerful climax of the Minuet are we directly confronted with the scale of what is lost; whereas the bluesy sign-off, equally unlikely and imaginative in its way, more typically wears the suite’s overall demeanour of a sad smile.

from notes by Peter Quantrill © 2011

Recordings

Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music
CDA67731/22CDs
Ravel: The Complete Solo Piano Music
CDA67341/22CDs
Ravel, Fauré & Poulenc: LCO Live
SIGCD211Download only
Images
Studio Master: SIGCD688Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Prélude
Movement 2: Forlane
Movement 2: Fugue
Movement 3: Forlane
Movement 3: Menuet
Movement 4: Rigaudon
Movement 5: Menuet
Movement 6: Toccata

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