Le Tombeau de Couperin is both Ravel’s tribute to his friends who passed in World War I and a evocation of music from the time of Couperin (the French Baroque). It was written during World War I, and each of the six movements is dedicated to a different friend who died in the war. Ravel himself was disappointed that he was considered unsuitable for active duty, so he became army truck driver in 1916. A year later he completed this piece.
While the piece is an implied tribute for World War I and was written during 1910s, the original inspiration for it came years before. Ravel had been planning to write a French suite for a while. Keyboard suites as a genre fell out of favor during the 1700s – about 200 years before Ravel wrote his. Jean-Philippe Rameau and François Couperin were the most famous composers of these keyboard suites.
Couperin wrote volumes of ‘Ordres’ (which are dance pieces in suite form). Ravel uses these 18th century dances in his own suite – such as the Forlane (from the Italian ‘furlana’ – a flirtatious 6/8 dance), the Rigadoun (a 17th century traditional French dance), and of course the always-popular Menuet.
The cover of the music score features a funerary urn drawn by Ravel himself. Whether this urn symbolizes Couperin’s ‘tomb’ or Ravel’s lost friends is impossible to tell, but there is certainly both a presence of loss and of looking back to the earlier times in French music.
Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written for piano, but in 1919, two years after the original version was completed, Ravel orchestrated the Prélude, Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. Today, it is more often performed in this form and as the set of four movements.