Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin


Originally a six-movement solo composition for piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917. ‘Tombeau’ is a musical term from the Baroque era meaning ‘a piece written as a memorial.’ Every movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to the memory of a friend of Ravel’s, who had died fighting in WWI. The form of the work imitates that of a Baroque dance suite, the movements, the key, and who they are dedicated to are shown below:

  • I: Prélude (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot
  • II: Fugue (E minor) in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi
  • III: Forlane (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc
  • IV: Rigaudon (C major) in memory of Pierrer and Pascal Gaudin
  • V: Menuet (G major) in memory of Jean Dreyfus
  • VI: Toccata (E minor) in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave

Ravel decided to orchestrate only four movements of this suite for orchestra, which are the Prélude (I), Forlane (III), Menuet (IV) and the Rigaudon (IV). This orchestrated version was premiered in February, 1920 by the Pasdeloup Orchestra. This blog will first explore the orchestral version.

The Music
I. Prélude 

Beginning with a circling and whimsical first motif in the oboe, the atmosphere is quickly locked into place in the Prélude. This particular opening motif requires a virtuoso oboe player to be able to tackle it, as it is repetitive, on-the-beat (in 12/16), and it is decorated with fast-moving mordents and trills. This then leads into the strings taking over for the next portion of the movement.

A descending circling sequence is heard, to which the winds then join in, until the whole orchestra swell up together, before the texture breaks off again. The oboe acts as a soloist in this movement, and its opening motif often returns. Ravel utilises chromatic harmony within this piece, which can be heard in both the melodic lines and the lower sustaining parts.

Ravel really does utilise every instrument in the orchestra, from the muted trumpets, to the harp, to the upper strings – every instrument is of great importance and adds something very special to the texture of this piece. The piece comes to a close with all parts dropping up, before a large glissando from the harp, which brings the flurry of upper winds in for a final trill in the home key of E minor, before the movement ends.


II. Forlane

The second movement, entitled Forlane, is based on the traditional Italian folk dance. With a bouncy 6/8 time signature, there is a certain charm about this movement. The first motif heard acts as the seed, which then blossoms throughout the rest of the movement.

The strings open this motif, but then take an accompanying role when the woodwinds enter and begin a call and response figure of the movement. There is more dissonance in this movement than in the Prélude, but it is usually only fleeting, and the whimsical atmosphere that was so prominent in the previous movement still remains.

The Forlane is very repetitive, which lines up with it taking inspiration from a folk dance. The movement ends with the voices of some instruments playing a small variation of the main theme, which then fades away.


III. Menuet

Set in 3/4 time, the Menuet is at a slower pace and, once again, showcases the oboe. This movement is very quaint, and delicate, which differs somewhat from the slightly heavier texture of the Forlane. Although beginning with a thinner texture, the Menuet grows into much thicker texture through the middle and end sections, showing Ravel’s strength in orchestration and working with a variety of different textures. The ending, similar to the other two before it, ends quietly with different instruments chipping in at the last moment, before suddenly finishing.


IV. Rigaudon 

The final movement of the orchestrated version of Le Tombeau de Couperin is the Rigaudon, the most lively of all the movements. Based in C major, this movement is intricate and fast-paced. The main theme heard at the start is repeated throughout the ensemble, until the second section starts, which is much slower. This vast change in both character and speed acts as a time of reflection, until the first theme then returns once more the close this exciting suite of music.


Final Thoughts

There is no definitive reason as to why Ravel only chose to orchestrate these four movements for orchestra. Perhaps he thought they would work the best in an orchestra setting. Perhaps these were his favourite movements. Either way, this suite is some of the finest music from Ravel’s pen.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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