Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937. Le Tombeau de Couperin. Completed 1917 (piano version), 1918 (orchestral version); first performance April, 1919, in Paris. Scored for 2 flutes, oboe, English Horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings.

In August of 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, Maurice Ravel was bitterly disappointed to learn that he was unfit for military service. He compensated by volunteering to care for the wounded, but did not give up his composing. One of the pieces he worked on during that period was a planned French Suite--written not on patriotic themes, but simply as a collection of French-flavored movements. The Suite eventually fell by the wayside, however, and was forgotten for over two years.

In the summer of 1917, Ravel repaired to Normandy in hopes of restoring his failing health and recovering from the loss of his mother, who had died the previous January. While there, he returned to the French Suite. In honor of the fallen soldiers he had cared for, he retitled it Le Tombeau de Couperin (literally, Couperin's Tomb, after François Couperin, a 17th-century composer whom Ravel chose to represent the French nation.

The work was planned to be premiered immediately in Paris, but a bombardment interfered and caused the performance to be postponed. While he was waiting for it to be rescheduled, Ravel could not resist orchestrating four of the movements (he once said ``For me, orchestration is more play than work'').

When the piano piece was finally presented to the public, it was a great success despite the inevitable naysayer, a clever critic who wrote, `` Couperin's Tomb by Monsieur Ravel, that's nice. But how much nicer would be Ravel's Tomb by Couperin!'' Like M. Ravel, we will leave it to the audience to decide between the critic and his target, with full confidence as to the outcome.

© 1999, Geoff Kuenning

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