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Le Tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) was Ravel’s 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 ’there’ll 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: ’I’m 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. I’m transcribing one by Couperin. I’m going to get it danced at the Vatican by Mistinguett and Colette Willy in drag’. Ravel’s 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


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