Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) was Ravels last
composition for solo piano, interrupted as the dates indicate, by his war service. He
declared that the homage actually applies less to Couperin alone than to the whole of
18th century French music. He did however do a preliminary transcription of a Forlane by
Couperin, and thereby hangs a little known tale that gives the work a delicious
contemporary piquancy. In the letter to Roland-Manuel about Le Tombeau quoted
earlier, Ravel says of his French Suite that therell be a forlane and a gigue; not a
tango, though...; it appears that in 1914, for some reason, the Pope, through the
Archbishop of Paris, in effect banned the tango. In polite society an attempt was made
unsuccessfully to replace it with the Forlane. Ravel, ever ready to get in an
anti-clerical dig wrote to a friend: Im beavering away for the benefit of the Pope. You
know that this august personage for whom the House of Redfern will be doing costume
designs next has just launched a new dance, the Forlane. Im transcribing one by Couperin.
Im going to get it danced at the Vatican by Mistinguett and Colette Willy in drag.
Ravels favourite movement was the Menuet, the last of his four minuets for piano, each
possessing its own sad, nostalgic, fragile innocence. Every dance had its own specific
emotional quality for Ravel - in 1906 he had written I find a deeper expression of the
joys of life in the dance than in Franckist puritanism ... I am well aware of what is in
store for me at the hands of the acolytes of neo-Christianity but I'm not bothered..
Yeats could have been writing about Le Tombeau de
Couperin and indeed about the whole subject of Ravel when he spoke of Symbolist
artists who express personal emotion through ideal form, a symbolism handled by the
generations, a mask from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that remembers many
masters that it may escape contemporary suggestion.
© Paul Crossley 1983