Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin will be performed at Widener on April 26th.  We are pleased to feature the program note as part of our ongoing series of posts commemorating the centenary of the First World War.  Thanks to Professor Mara Parker for sharing!  You can learn more about the chamber music program at Widener here.  And check out Ravel’s piece here:

Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin

By Professor Mara Parker, Chair of Fine Arts and Director of String Performance

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was devastated by the events of World War I.  Although exempted from military service years earlier, he was determined to get involved.  So in 1914, at age 39, he enlisted. He was sent to the front and experienced, first-hand, the terror.  Writing to his friend, Jean Marnold, Ravel described what he saw: “… a hallucinating thing: a nightmarish city, horribly deserted and mute.  It isn’t the fracas from above, or the small balloons of white smoke which line the very pure sky; it’s not this formidable and invisible struggle which is anguishing, but rather to feel alone in the center of this city which rests in a sinister sleep, under the brilliant light of a beautiful summer day.  Undoubtedly I will see things which will be more frightful and repugnant; I don’t believe I will ever experience a more profound and stranger emotion than this sort of mute terror.”[1]

The war brought other problems.  Ravel’s health deteriorated.  He suffered from frequent insomnia and ate little.  Following an operation for dysentery in 1916, he arrived home just in time to see his mother die.  He returned to the hospital, depressed and alone.  He was released, then hospitalized again soon after, this time for frostbite.

The entire period was musically unproductive.  Ravel composed almost nothing.  He did, however, finish his six-movement piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917) that he had started before the war.  It is a tragic work although the sound is disguised under a deceptively objective surface.  Each movement (Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet, and Toccata) was dedicated to a friend who had died in the war.  Fittingly, Marguerite Long, widow of the final movement’s dedicatee, premiered the work on April 11, 1919. Long had an emotionally difficult time playing this piece due to its connection with her husband and subsequently ceased public performance for two years.  Ravel felt no one else was capable of interpreting the piano suite and refused to give the score to anyone else.  He did, however, orchestrate four of the movements in June of 1919, omitting both the fugue and toccata.  Tombeau, in its “new” version, was first performed in February of 1920.

The word “Tombeau” means “tomb.”  During the musical Baroque Era (1600-1750), composers used the term to denote a piece written as an elegy for a particular person.  Unfortunately, we do not know to whom Ravel was referring in the title.  All he would say was that he was making a tribute to the music of eighteenth-century France and to the French composer Couperin.  Beneath the seemingly pleasant music is a series of painful laments for both those killed in the war and for Ravel’s own mother.

The piece to be performed on April 26th, the Menuet, is an arrangement for piano trio (piano, violin, cello).  With its transparent texture and classical simplicity, it mimics the refined sound and intimacy of Ravel’s composition in its original form.  Laid out in a clear, three-part structure, we hear the haunting melody first in the violin, then in the cello.  The middle trio section, harmonically more dissonant than the opening, merges the three instruments in a series of chord progressions, beginning almost inaudibly and building continuously to a thunderous peak.  A return to the placid chordal section concludes the trio and heralds the reappearance of the minuet.

[1] Written on a postcard, dated April 4, 1916; housed in the Music Division of the Bibliothèque Nationale.