Le tombeau de Couperin

This article is about the Ravel piano composition. For George Balanchine's 1975 ballet, see Le tombeau de Couperin (ballet).
Cover of the first printed edition designed by Ravel himself

Le tombeau de Couperin is a suite for solo piano by Maurice Ravel, composed between 1914 and 1917, in six movements based on those of a traditional Baroque suite. Each movement is dedicated to the memory of a friend of the composer (or in one case, two brothers) who had died fighting in World War I. Ravel also produced an orchestral version of the work in 1919, although this omitted two of the original movements.


Tombeau in the title is a musical term popular from the 17th century meaning "a piece written as a memorial". The specific Couperin, among a family noted as musicians for about two centuries, that Ravel intended to evoke is thought to be François Couperin "the Great" (1668–1733). Ravel stated that his intention was to pay homage more generally to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite not necessarily to imitate or pay tribute to Couperin himself in particular. This is reflected in the structure which imitates a Baroque dance suite.

As a preparatory exercise, Ravel had transcribed a forlane (an Italian folk dance) from the fourth suite of Couperin's Concerts royaux, and this piece invokes Ravel's Forlane structurally. The other movements are similarly based on Baroque forms, with the Toccata taking the form of a perpetuum mobile reminiscent of Alessandro Scarlatti.[1] Ravel also revives Baroque practices through his distinctive use of ornamentation and modal harmony. neoclassicism also shines through with Ravel's pointedly twentieth-century chromatic melody and piquant harmonies, particularly in the dissonant Forlane.

Written after the death of Ravel's mother in 1917 and of friends in the First World War, Le tombeau de Couperin is a light-hearted, and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one which Ravel explained in response to criticism saying: "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."[2]

The first performance of the original piano version was given on 11 April 1919 by Marguerite Long, Joseph de Marliave's widow, in the Salle Gaveau in Paris.[3][4]


The movements are as follows:

Prélude Vif
= 92
E minor in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (transcriber of Ma mère l'oye for piano solo)
Fugue Allegro moderato
= 84
E minor in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi (to whose mother Ravel had also dedicated L'heure espagnole)
Forlane Allegretto
= 96
E minor in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc (a Basque painter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz)
Rigaudon Assez vif
C major in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin (two brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914)
Menuet Allegro moderato
= 92
G major in memory of Jean Dreyfus (at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized)
Toccata Vif
= 144
E minor ending in E major
in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave (musicologist and husband of Marguerite Long)

Orchestrations and transcriptions

The house in Lyons-la-Forêt where Ravel composed Le tombeau de Couperin

In 1919 Ravel orchestrated four movements of the work (Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon);[5] this version was premiered in February 1920 by Rhené-Baton and the Pasdeloup Orchestra, and has remained one of his more popular works. Ravel transcribed many of his piano pieces for orchestra, but here he reaches the height of his orchestration skills, turning a very pianistic piece into a superb orchestral suite with very few hints of its origins. The orchestral version clarifies the harmonic language of the suite and brings sharpness to its classical dance rhythms; among the demands it places on the orchestra is the requirement for an oboe soloist of virtuosic skill, as the oboist takes the melody in the Prélude and the Menuet as well as for the pastoral C minor section of the Rigaudon, where it is accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati.[6]

The orchestrated version is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling cor anglais), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, harp, and strings.

Only a few years after Ravel's own orchestration, Lucien Garban (working under the pseudonym of Roger Branga) produced a version of the piece for 'small orchestra' with a piano-conductor, consisting of the Prélude, Menuet and Rigaudon. He had previously transcribed the full suite for piano four hands in 1919.

Several other composers have since created orchestrations of those two movements which Ravel omitted, the Fugue and the Toccata. David Diamond has orchestrated the second movement Fugue, while the Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis has produced his own version of both the Fugue and the Toccata. However, here, the Toccata, scored for a very large orchestra, goes far beyond the limits of Ravel's own, small orchestra, and the Fugue is set for winds only. Another instrumentation of Fugue and Toccata by pianist Michael Round was recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy (Exton, 2003): the score is published (as two separate titles, 'Fugue' and 'Toccata') by Edwin F. Kalmus. Round's version of the Toccata adds percussion, requiring up to five players. Kalmus omitted the percussion parts from the published score so as to exactly match the orchestration of the rest of the suite, but these parts are available separately, directly from the orchestrator. In 2013 the British composer Kenneth Hesketh orchestrated the Fugue and Toccata for the exact orchestration of the original four-movement orchestral suite. The first performance was given by the Goettingen Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Mathias Mueller. The scores are available from Schott Music, London.

Four movements (Prélude, Fugue, Menuet, and Rigaudon) have been arranged for wind quintet by American horn player Mason Jones (1919–2009).[7] Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has also transcribed four movements for wind quintet.,[8] and further American composer Gunther Schuller has made a wind-quintet arrangement.[9]

In 2013, Trevor P. Wagler re-arranged the orchestral version of four movements (Prélude, Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon) down to a quintet (ob/cl/vn/vcl/pft), played at Wilfrid Laurier University.[10]

For oboe and piano, the four orchestral movements (Prélude, Fugue, Menuet and Rigaudon) have been arranged 2014 by Elena González Arias (Adliswil: Ed.Kunzelmann, 2014).[11]


  1. Nancy Bricard, "About the Music", in Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 2003), p. 14.
  2. Maurice Ravel. Le tombeau de Couperin and Valses nobles et sentimentales in Full Score. Reprinted, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001. ISBN 0486418987.
  3. Le tombeau de Couperin at Maurice Ravel website
  4. Nancy Bricard, "Foreword", in Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 2003), p. 1.
  5. Arbie Orenstein, Ravel, man and musician. (New York: Dover Publications, 1991) p. 234.
  6. Gene Tyranny, "Blue". "Le tombeau de Couperin, for orchestra". AllMusic.com. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
  7. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, transcribed for wind quintet by Mason Jones (Paris: Ed. Durand, 1970).
  8. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, arranged for wind quintet by Hans Abrahamsen (Copenhagen: Ed. Wilhelm Hansen, n.d.).
  9. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, arranged for wind quintet by Gunther Schuller (Newton Centre, MA: Margun Music, 1995).
  10. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, arranged for mixed quintet by Trevor P. Wagler. No. 000115 (Waterloo, Ontario: Trevor P. Wagler, n.d.)
  11. Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin, arranged for oboe and piano by Elena González Arias (Adliswil: Ed. Kunzelmann, 2014).

External links

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