Nymphs Dancing at the Composer’s Grave

Joy and serenity mark Ravel’s piece honouring Couperin. © Charles Thibo

I imagine and old cemetery: grey tombstones, covered by moss, bushes of fern, huge oaks trees casting long shadows, flickering lights, reflections of the sun on the wet leaves and then… music! The woods play the opening melody of the Prelude, quickly echoed by the strings. A melody like a lively river. Or is it a procession of nymphs? Yes, nymphs are hovering across the path and assembling at an old grave made of solid stones: François Couperin is buried here, forgotten by mankind.

The nymphs now start a dance of Italian origin – a Furlana. They honour the Baroque composer François Couperin, we have met in a recent post, who has written so many beautiful pieces for the harpsichord. Another dance, much calmer, a Minuet, follows, the nymphs regroup and perform this walking dance in a very disciplined way, their faces radiating, their demeanor solemn and blissful.  Finally on the rhythm of a last dance, a Rigaudon, the nymphs leave the cemetery.

Heir to the Baroque master

Four movements make up the symphonic piece “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (Couperin’s grave), composed by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The meaning I gave the four movements above was entirely made up by me. Ravel had something totally different – and much less prosaic –  in mind. First, he wanted to honour the Baroque forms of composition for the harpsichord exemplified by Couperin. In the 17th century, a “tombeau” meant a piece written as a memorial. And second, the original score for piano did not have four, but six movements. Each movement was dedicated to a friend killed during World War I. Ravel inserted a Fugue between the Prelude and the Furlana, the Rigaudon was the fourth movement and the piece closed on a Toccata. The piece in its orchestrated version was first performed in 1920.

Ups and downs at the conservatory

Ravel, like Claude Debussy, is often associated with the Impressionist period in painting – and by extension – in music, though this definition was neither very precise nor very popular at the time. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ravel was internationally regarded as France’s greatest living composer. In 1882, he started with piano and composition lessons and in November 1889, he was accepted to the preparatory piano class at the Conservatoire de Paris. After winning the 1891 piano competition, Ravel deepened his piano and harmony studies, but despite reasonable progress he did not win any prizes and was dismissed from his classes. He left the conservatory in 1895, the year he set his sights on a future as a composer. In 1897, he returned, studying composition with Gabriel Fauré and counterpoint with André Gédalge; he later said that these two teachers had a huge influence on his technique.

Sick and miserable

At the outbreak of World War I, Ravel tried to enroll as an air force pilot, but was refused on health ground. He served as a driver in a transportation unit, but quickly became dissatisfied. On the one hand, he wished to serve his country, but on the other hand he was frustrated at not being able to compose. Home sickness and dysentery further depressed him, and while he recuperated in Paris, his mother died suddenly in early 1917. Ravel was desolate, and his creativity hit rock-bottom. However, in 1919 he wrote the piano version of the “Tombeau de Couperin”. As you have seen, I find the piece very stimulating and enjoyable, and I recommend the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado.

And should you wonder, where Couperin is buried – the tomb is gone. Upon his death, he was buried at the cemetery of Saint-Joseph, close to the church of Saint-Eustache. The cemetery disappeared in 1796, his tomb was not preserved. Couperin’s remains probably ended up in the catacombs of Paris. The image of the cemetery I had in mind is real however. It is located in the heart of Munich. A very calm place, where I spent many hours reading a long time ago.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.