Composed: 1917, orch. 1919
Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 14, 1932, Artur Rodzinski conducting
For Ravel, craftsmanship did not imply sameness: “I have never limited myself to a ‘Ravel’ style,” he once quipped. His music thus abounds with idiosyncratic effects and divergent impulses, its overflowing inventiveness shaped by a natural expressive economy and its meticulously crafted phrases awash in sensuous instrumental color. He was open to the myriad sounds of the early 20th-century environment; as he expressed to an American journalist, “The world is changing and contradicting itself as never before. I am happy to be living through all this and to have the good fortune of being a composer.” This ability to retain a sense of balance while surrounded by the artistic and social chaos of early modernism allowed Ravel to find stimulation in an eclectic mix of sources without boxing himself into any particular “ism.” Thus his music retains a freshness that sounds more forward-looking the older it gets.
In the 1917 Le tombeau de Couperin, originally composed for piano, Ravel expressed his modern sensibility in the accents of the 18th century. He described it as an homage “directed less in fact to Couperin himself than to French music of the 18th century.” Disregarding the philosopher (and would-be composer) Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1753 pronouncement that “there is neither rhythm nor melody in French music,” Ravel fused both rhythmic and melodic forms and cadences of Couperin’s time with those of his own. The work conveys a sense of the present as a perennially open dialogue with the past.
The 1919 orchestration stands out even among Ravel’s invariably superb orchestrations. Crisp tone colors, incisive rhythms, and precise melodic contours are given a modern harmonic twist, but the listener finds no incongruity – only an occasional felicitous surprise. A restless oboe solo begins the Prélude, returning at intervals amidst fanciful orchestral passages. Ravel’s wide-ranging melody and subtle rhythmic inflections impart a lithe grace to the Italian Forlane. The graceful Menuet sparkles with woodwind solos, while the bustling Rigaudon captures the peculiar vivacity of French society in any century.
— Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music.