Le Tombeau de Couperin is a suite for solo piano by Maurice Ravel, composed between 1914 and 1917.
It is in six movements. Each movement is dedicated to the memory of friends of the composer who had died fighting in World War I. Ravel himself served in the war as an ambulance driver and was wounded in the process. The movements are:
I. Prélude. "To the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot" (who transcribed Ravel's four-hand piece Ma Mère l'Oye for solo piano).
II. Fugue. "To the memory of Jean Cruppi" (to whose mother Ravel dedicated his opera L'heure espagnole).
III. Forlane. "To the memory of Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc" (a Basque painter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz).
IV. Rigaudon. "To the memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin" (brothers killed by the same shell).
V. Menuet. "To the memory of Jean Dreyfus" (at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized).
VI. Toccata. "To the memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave".
In 1919 Ravel orchestrated four movements of the work (Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon); this version was first performed in 1920, and has remained one of his more popular works. Ravel transcribed many of his piano pieces for orchestra, but here he reaches the height of his orchestration skills, turning a very pianistic piece into a superb orchestral suite with very few hints of its origins. The orchestral version clarifies the harmonic language of the suite and brings sharpness to its classical dance rhythms; among the demands it places on the orchestra is the requirement for an oboe soloist of virtuosic skill.
While the word-for-word meaning of the title invites the assumption that the suite is a programmatic work, describing what is seen and felt in a visit to the tomb of Couperin, tombeau is actually a musical term popular in an earlier century and meaning a piece written as a memorial. The specific Couperin (among a family noted as musicians for about two centuries) that Ravel intended to be evoked, along with the friends, would presumably be François Couperin "the Great" (1668-1733). However, Ravel stated that his intention was never to imitate or tribute Couperin himself, but rather was to pay homage to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite. This is reflected in the structure which imitates a Baroque dance suite. As a preparatory exercise, Ravel had transcibed a Forlane from the fourth suite of Couperin's Concerts Royaux, and this piece informs Ravel's Forlane structurally. However, Ravel's neoclassicism shines through with his pointedly twentieth-century chromatic melody and piquant harmonies.
When criticised for composing a light-hearted, and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one, for such a sombre topic, Ravel replied: "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."
Complete recording by Andrew Sheffield