Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), French composer. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

 

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.

But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.

From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.

For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.

One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:

1. Prélude:

2. Forlane:

3. Menuet:

4. Rigaudon:

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony: An Explosion of Counterpoint

Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony

The final movement of Mozart’s final symphony ends with a bang…a joyfully exhilarating explosion of counterpoint. Like a roller coaster ride, this last movement often feels enticingly dangerous, as if it’s on the verge of spinning out of control. Somehow, it always ends up staying on the track. By the end of the coda, Mozart has simultaneously combined five independent musical themes from the movement, creating a stunning musical fireworks display.

Mozart’s last three symphonies (39, 40 and 41) were written, back to back, in the summer of 1788. John Adams observed that many composers seem to drift towards increasingly contrapuntal writing in their final years. Beyond Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler are prime examples. Counterpoint refers to multiple independent musical voices occurring at the same time.

Let’s listen to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major K. 551, nicknamed the “Jupiter”, starting with the first movement. You can hear the influence of opera in the musical dialogues which run throughout the symphony. The movement opens with a conversation between two seemingly contrasting characters. Later, in the second theme, more conversation occurs between the violins and cellos (2:31). The silent pauses, where the music suddenly stops, seem as important as the notes. At 3:50, following one of these pauses, a direct quote of Mozart’s earlier aria, Un bacio di mano K. 541 pops up unexpectedly.

The second movement is a French Sarabande, a dance form which J.S. Bach used in the solo violin, cello and keyboard suites. Try closing your eyes as you listen. Beyond the calm beauty of the opening, do you hear a hint of darkness, tragedy and tumult in the music?

The Austrian Landler third movement is fun because of its sense of motion and flow. The Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording, below, demonstrates the extent to which style comes out of rhythm and tempo. Rhythmic “feel” and expression are closely connected.

The final movement is built on four notes (C, D, F, E) which have ancient roots in plainchant (listen to Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua). Mozart used this motive in at least two of his symphonies (1 and 33) and in his Missa brevis No. 3. Here, the motive develops into some of the most complex counterpoint and fugal writing ever imagined. In the coda, beginning in 41:16, listen for all five motives occurring simultaneously…a true explosion of counterpoint.

  1. Allegro vivace 0:00
  2. Andante  cantabile 13:31
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto 25:05
  4. Molto allegro 31:15

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The Art of the Ostinato

An ostinato is a musical motif or phrase that is persistently repeated.  Here are three pieces from the Baroque period that are constructed around a repeating bass line known as a basso ostinato, or ground bass.  In each case, the bass line provides the framework for a set of increasingly complex and thrilling variations.  It’s as if the composer is saying, “Listen to how clever and inventive I can be!”

Canon in D…Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

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The performance below by the San Francisco Early Music Ensemble uses period instruments and attempts to authentically capture Baroque style.  Notice that the bows differ slightly from our modern bows and hardly any vibrato is used.

The cello provides the ground bass.  Listen to the contour of this bass line as it moves stepwise downward and then gets pulled back again.  A Baroque organ and theorbo (a plucked string instrument similar to a lute) fill in the harmony, providing what is known as a continuo.  The solo violins perform a three part canon.  A canon is “a contrapuntal composition that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration.”  In Pachelbel’s canon the voices are two measures apart.  Pay attention to the way the three identical solo parts fit together.

Passacaglia…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)  Arranged for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen

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Similar to a chacconne, a passacaglia is a Baroque dance form that features a series of variations over an ostinato bass.   Handel wrote this music for a harpsichord suite that was published in 1720.  The Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) made this spectacular arrangement, re-scoring Handel’s variations for violin and viola.  Here, violinist Itzhak Perlman and violist Pinchas Zukerman perform this dazzling virtuoso showpiece as an encore.

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

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You will hear amazing new details each time you listen to this piece.  Bach was a master of counterpoint, which is “the technique of combining two or more melodic ideas in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.”  Listen to the way Bach weaves new musical lines over the repeating passacaglia theme.  Also, listen to the exciting ways Bach chooses to harmonize these lines.  Like Pachelbel, Bach was an organist and, starting out with a pre-existing melody (often a choral tune, but in this case a passacaglia), he improvised this complex music for church services.  Only later were these improvisations written down.

The second part of the piece is a Fugue (starting at 8:06) which is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.”  Bach uses the first eight notes of the passacaglia theme as his subject.  See if you can pick out the subject each time in enters.  Sometimes it will be higher in register, other times lower, and it will usually be surrounded by other musical lines.  The music becomes increasingly complex, modulating to different keys before triumphantly returning to the home key of C (this time Major replacing minor).

Enjoy the music and if you feel inspired, leave a comment below.  Your insights greatly enrich the conversation!