Le Tombeau de Couperin

By Maurice Ravel
Composed in 1919

Ravel first composed Tombeau as a suite for piano in six movements, and then arranged it as a 4-movement suite for orchestra in 1919.

A “tombeau” was, in the French baroque tradition, a composition meant as a memorial, and each movement of Ravel’s Tombeau is dedicated to a friend who perished in World War I.

The reference to “Couperin” evokes one of France’s great baroque composers, and indeed the four movements of this work are based largely on baroque French dance forms. Ravel’s genius is to fuse these baroque frameworks with modern harmonies and instrumentation to create works of atmosphere, charm and grace.

The opening Prélude is a cascade of motifs led by the oboe (which has a virtuosic part in this entire work). The dance movements all have main sections with contrasting interludes. The Forlane is a wistful modern rendering of a stately dance, evolving into ever more unearthly harmonies until its resolution; the Menuet is a charming updating of an old classic; and the Rigaudon, with woodwind and brass highlights, provides a rousing finale.