Maurice Ravel ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’: A Whimsical Memory

Dearest readers, welcome to Day ‘R’ of my Alphabet Challenge, and I have been so very excited to share this next composer and work with you! For Day R, this blog will be looking into the brilliant Maurice Ravel and his work (originally for piano, but for this blog we will be looking into the version for orchestra) – Le tombeau de Couperin. I hope you enjoy this work as much as I do – happy Ravel-ing!

Born on March 7th, 1875, Maurice Ravel was born into a music-loving family. Ravel spent the first three months of his life in the Basque town of Ciboure in France, which was very close to the Spanish border. Soon after being baptised, the Ravel family made the move to Paris. Although not musicians themselves, both of Ravel’s parents were keen music aficionados, with Ravel recalling that:

“Throughout my childhood I was sensitive to music. My father, much better educated in this art than most amateurs are, knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age.”

At age seven, Ravel began piano lessons with Henry Ghys, which led him to study harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René. Ravel soon applied to one of the most prestigious music colleges in the world – Conservatoire de Paris. One year, Ravel won first prize in the Conservatoire’s piano competition in 1891. Due to his stubbornness as a student, Ravel was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895. From here, Ravel pursued his interest in composition, rather than piano performance.

After working for two years on composition, Ravel was readmitted to the Conservatory to study composition with Gabriel Fauré. After leaving education, Ravel, alongside many other artists, joined an informal group called ‘Les Apaches’ (‘The Hooligans’), which represented their status as outcast artists. Alongside Ravel in Les Apaches, was Claude Debussy, who was twelve years his senior. The two were friendly for over ten years. However, the first decade of the 1900s saw their friendship dwindle away due to both musical and personal reasons. Fans of the two would often degrade the other, which has made the chronology and ‘who inspired who’ very blurred.

Ravel’s catalogue of music spans up to around 85 pieces of music, many of which are piano works. These piano works were, more often than not, taken by Ravel after being published, so that he could re-orchestrate them into independent pieces for orchestra. Ravel composed in a range of different styles, including opera, chamber music, ballet music and song cycles, however, he did not compose any symphonies. Although referred to as a key figure in the impressionist era, Ravel also drew on influences from the likes of Schubert, Debussy, Satie, Chopin and Mozart. Ravel’s harmonic language is regarded as progressive, complex and often influenced by various different genres, such as jazz, baroque, classicism and romanticism.

As aforementioned, Ravel was well-known for being a master of orchestration, whether that was of his own works, or other composers’. Due to Ravel’s focus largely being on orchestration, there are actually only four orchestral compositions that were actually intended to be concert works for symphony orchestra (two of which are concertos!). Other works, such as Daphnis et Chloé, Alborada del gracioso, Valses nobles et sentimentales and Le tombeau de Couperin were written as either stage shows, or for solo piano. It is generally accepted that Ravel’s orchestrations clarify and celebrate his rich and complex harmonic language, as well as bringing to life the score in a multi-dimensional way.

Originally a six-movement solo composition for piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917. ‘Tombeau’ is a musical term from the Baroque era meaning ‘a piece written as a memorial.’ Every movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to the memory of a friend of Ravel’s, who had died fighting in WWI. The form of the work imitates that of a Baroque dance suite, the movements, the key, and who they are dedicated to are shown below:

  • I: Prélude (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot
  • II: Fugue (E minor) in memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi
  • III: Forlane (E minor) in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc
  • IV: Rigaudon (C major) in memory of Pierrer and Pascal Gaudin
  • V: Menuet (G major) in memory of Jean Dreyfus
  • VI: Toccata (E minor) in memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave

Ravel decided to orchestrate only four movements of this suite for orchestra, which are the Prélude (I), Forlane (III), Menuet (IV) and the Rigaudon (IV). This orchestrated version was premiered in February, 1920 by the Pasdeloup Orchestra. Although this blog will be discussing the four orchestrated movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin, I will make the full piano suite available on the Classicalexburns playlist.


Beginning with a circling and whimsical first motif in the oboe, the atmosphere is quickly locked into place in the Prélude. This particular opening motif requires a virtuoso oboe player to be able to tackle it, as it is repetitive, on-the-beat (in 12/16), and it is decorated with fast-moving mordents and trills. This then leads into the strings taking over for the next portion of the movement. A descending circling sequence is heard, to which the winds then join in, until the whole orchestra swell up together, before the texture breaks off again. The oboe acts as a soloist in this movement, and its opening motif often returns. Ravel utilises chromatic harmony within this piece, which can be heard in both the melodic lines and the lower sustaining parts. Ravel really does utilise every instrument in the orchestra, from the muted trumpets, to the harp, to the upper strings – every instrument is of great importance and adds something very special to the texture of this piece. The piece comes to a close with all parts dropping up, before a large glissando from the harp, which brings the flurry of upper winds in for a final trill in the home key of E minor, before the movement ends.

II. Forlane

The second movement, entitled Forlane, is based on the traditional Italian folk dance. With a bouncy 6/8 time signature, there is a certain charm about this movement. The first motif heard acts as the seed, which then blossoms throughout the rest of the movement. The strings open this motif, but then take an accompanying role when the woodwinds enter and begin a call and response figure of the movement. There is more dissonance in this movement than in the Prélude, but it is usually only fleeting, and the whimsical atmosphere that was so prominent in the previous movement still remains. The Forlane is very repetitive, which lines up with it taking inspiration from a folk dance. The movement ends with the voices of some instruments playing a small variation of the main theme, which then fades away.

III. Menuet

Set in 3/4 time, the Menuet is at a slower pace and, once again, showcases the oboe. This movement is very quaint, and delicate, which differs somewhat from the slightly heavier texture of the Forlane. Although beginning with a thinner texture, the Menuet grows into much thicker texture through the middle and end sections, showing Ravel’s strength in orchestration and working with a variety of different textures. The ending, similar to the other two before it, ends quietly with different instruments chipping in at the last moment, before suddenly finishing.

IV. Rigaudon 

The final movement of the orchestrated version of Le Tombeau de Couperin is the Rigaudon, the most lively of all the movements. Based in C major, this movement is intricate and fast-paced. The main theme heard at the start is repeated throughout the ensemble, until the second section starts, which is much slower. This vast change in both character and speed acts as a time of reflection, until the first theme then returns once more the close this exciting suite of music.

There is no definitive reason as to why Ravel only chose to orchestrate these four movements for orchestra. Perhaps he thought they would work the best in an orchestra setting? Perhaps these were his favourite movements? We will probably never know, I believe we should be thankful we have this music in various forms as it is truly wonderful. I personally feel that the Prélude is one of Ravel’s finest compositions. I do hope that you have enjoyed this blog on Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Both the original solo piano version and the orchestrated versions are worth listening to, as they are full of Ravel’s fantastic compositional style that is still admired today. I would like to dedicate this blog to a friend and fellow Ravel lover, Nadim Jauffur. I hope listening to this suite makes your day that little bit better!

Join me very soon for Day ‘S’ of my Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Piano version: