MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Ravel’s Bolero – three examples of works whose popularity became a source of some regret to their composers, who became tired of being asked to repeat the work over and over again . Indeed Ravel, whose Bolero itself repeats its material many times in perhaps the longest crescendo in music, said of it: ‘I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.’

Whilst Bolero is indeed something of a ‘Marmite piece’, Ravel’s modesty in terms of masterpieces is unequivocally misplaced – few, if any, twentieth century composers created more magic than Ravel, who, with Debussy, led the cause of musical Impressionism in the same way that artists such as Monet and Renoir inspired Impressionism with the paintbrush.

Ravel was born in the Basque region of southern France, which accounts for his affinity with Spain and the Spanish flavour of a number of his works. He began learning the piano aged seven and showed a natural but not outstanding ability, giving his first recital aged fourteen alongside another young pianist destined for a glittering career, Alfred Cortot. Ravel’s competent piano-playing enabled him to begin composing for the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire but although he won a prize or two he was merely an average student, and was even expelled in 1895. During this time, however, he was collecting influences, amongst which was the music of Wagner, and he was also much taken with the virtuoso orchestrating skills of Rimsky­ Korsakov. In 1897 he was readmitted to the Conservatoire and began composition lessons with the great Gabriel Faure.

His first guarded success as a composer came in 1899 with the composition Pavane for a Dead Infanta for piano, which he would orchestrate in 1910, but generally his initial compositions were not well received . He gravitated towards other composers who were also struggling for understanding, including Debussy (twelve years his elder), Stravinsky and Erik Satie, each full of admiration for the others. Although he worked painstakingly slowly, his list of compositions grew, including a superb string quartet and more piano works, a number of which he began orchestrating; these included Mother Goose (Ma Mere l’Oye, 1908-10, orchestrated 1911) and, in Spanish style, Rapsodie espagnole, based on Habanera (two pianos, 1895 and orchestrated in 1907-8) and Albarado def Gracioso (1905, orchestrated 1918).

He began gaining international respect as an orchestrator, and although he didn’t teach a great deal he did enjoy working with Ralph Vaughan Williams, who visited him in 1907-8 for ‘a bit of French polish’. He was also to be asked for lessons in the 1920s by George Gershwin, but Ravel refused, saying: ‘Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’ Ravel would, however, begin to infuse his music with jazz influences.

Among his great masterpieces were the magical ballet Daphnis and Chloe (1912), La Valse, a ‘choreographic poem’ (1920), his bitter evocation of fin-de-siecle, which gradually disintegrates from a ghostly memory of the Waltz Age into the chaos brought by War, and two piano concertos, the G major jazz-influenced and the other for the Left Hand alone – written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost an arm during the War. His work as an orchestrator is also known in the most-played of the many orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Le Tombeau de Couperin – in other words, a work written as a memorial in the style of the composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733) – began life as a suite of six piano pieces written between 1914 and 1917, each also dedicated to a friend who had fallen in World War 1. In 1919 he chose four, each with Couperin-style titles, to orchestrate in his own unique style, which magically find a contemporary slant on Couperin’s baroque figurations. Despite its apparent simplicity, the suite presents each section of the orchestra with extreme technical challenges, with a virtuosic role for first oboe, noticeable right from the start in the Prelude. The work was premiered in February 1920.

The Prelude is dedicated to First Lt Jacques Charlot, and begins with delicate tracery first for solo oboe, then for upper strings in partnership with each other, which continues with only hints of a more strident nature.

The For/one, based on a somewhat quirky Italian dance, is in memory of Second Lt Jean Cruppi, and begins and ends with quietly angular dotted figures with slanting harmonies. The middle section is more lyrical.

The Menuet, fifth in the original piano suite, is in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a close friend of Ravel. Its atmosphere is wistful but suave, once again the oboe leading the way.

Finally the Rigaudon (somewhat similar in style to a sailors’ hornpipe), and originally fourth in the piano suite, although outwardly light-hearted in its outer sections, is dedicated to two brothers, Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were childhood friends of Ravel, but tragically both killed in November 1914 by the same shell. The middle section is pastoral and reflective.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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