The Ineffable

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917-1919) is a mourning tribute to the war. It gives sound to the ineffable, to that which is unutterable. “The Ineffable” delves into the pain caused by the war guided by the music of Maurice Ravel; it seeks to suffer with the wounded of the conflict. The first modern war had unveiled revolutionary technology capable of inflicting damage never imagined before. The days which Ravel spent composing this suite were especially hard for him as he had faced the vicissitudes of the front and the loss of his loved ones. Most of all, he endured the illness and death of his dear mother in 1917, a loss from which he never fully recovered. The profound changes that Ravel experienced during the war considerably drained his vital energy. Eighteen years later, a premature death awaited him.

Of all the works included in this project, Le Tombeau de Couperin, due to its size and scope, is the composition most significantly related to the war. While the title explicitly mentions François Couperin, an icon of French Baroque keyboard music, the piece revived the baroque genre of the tombeau—a suite of dances honoring loved or important persons—as a musical monument, with each dance dedicated to a musician fallen in combat. It’s considered a revolutionary work for its virtuoso and innovative pianistic writing as well as for its use of the jeu perlè, a distinct technique of French keyboard school remarkably mastered by the pianist that premiered the suite in 1919, Marguerite Long. Long was a close friend of Ravel and the wife of the deceased Joseph de Marliave, to whom Ravel dedicated the last movement of the suite: a particularly challenging Toccata. In the article Mourning at the Piano: Marguerite Long, Maurice Ravel, and the Performance of Grief in Interwar France, Jillian Rogers suggests that Ravel might have composed this demanding piece as a therapeutic exercise for Long in an effort to help her overcome her grief. Rogers’ premise invites us to venture that the work was also indirectly dedicated to Long.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is the result of an introspection that flows from solemn musical passages to those more contemplative and intimate, but does not want for moments of triumphant enthusiasm. In the aforementioned article, Rogers contends that public expression of grief was considered anti-patriotic and was frowned upon in wartime France. Indeed, the contents of the letters between Long and Ravel prove that their close circle of friends harshly criticized the evidence of their weakness in the face of adversity. Nonetheless, Le Tombeau de Couperin is a suite that acquiesces to the funeral rites of the time without betraying patriotic sentiment. However, it also expresses a deep veiled regret.