Ravel’s Tribute to Fallen Friends

This exuberant and elegant orchestral suite was arranged from selected movements of the composer’s original piano version. Three movements (“Forlane,” “Minuet,” and “Rigaudon”) from this orchestration of Le tombeau received a dance interpretation from Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht, Jean Borlin, and Rolf de Maré which was premiered on November 8, 1920, at the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

The Tomb of Couperin was intended by the composer as an homage to eighteenth-century French music, of which a majority of characteristic forms are found in the creations of François Couperin. The “tomb” of the title came to have further resonance; with the outbreak of the First World War, several of Ravel‘s comrades fell in battle, and each movement of the piano work is dedicated to one of them.

The first movement is a “Prelude”, in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (transcriber of Ma mère l’oye for piano solo), in a lively triple meter marked Vif. The largely pentatonic theme is taken by the oboe, echoed by the clarinets, and gradually builds to a brief lush texture in the strings. Woodwinds are employed percussively at times, and the bassoons are sometimes combined with low clarinets for reedy timbres. Muted and pizzicato strings with harp harmonics at times form velvety “impressionist” textures that briefly contrast with the clear, pastoral timbres. The piece concludes with a surprising harp glissando into a sustained tremolo on flutes, oboes, and muted strings.

Although the rhythm, sprightly mordents, staccatos alternating with offbeat accents, and structure of the “Forlane”, in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc (a Basque painter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz), are the same as the historical dance, Ravel employs major sevenths and chromatics, giving the tune a decided contemporary edge. This dance is lively like the preceding prelude, but has a more earthy feeling and is at a slightly less hectic Allegretto. An unusual touch is the combination of staccato woodwinds with string and harp harmonics.

The “Menuet”, in memory of Jean Dreyfus (at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized), opens with the theme in the oboe with mostly semi-staccato accompaniment figures and wonderful modal harmonies. The musette theme is scored with cello drone and subtle rhythmic harmonics. Thick, dramatic chords descend over a pedal and introduces the combination of minuet and musette themes.

The fourth movement “Rigaudon”, in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin (two brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914), is in two contrasting sections: an animated dance in C major and a charming pastoral-like C minor oboe melody accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati. The first section is recapitulated for a bright conclusion.

Hear it live with the SSO Saturday, November 10th – click for more information.

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