In the first days of November we remember.
November 1st is All Saints’ Day, the celebration that gave rise to Halloween, even if modern culture pays more attention to the edgy rebellion implicit in October 31st than the day that follows. In many churches it’s a day to honour those who have passed away, remembering parents, grandparents and those who came before, presumed to have ascended to heaven.
And a few days later, another important day. Known as “Armistice Day” throughout the British Empire it was renamed “Remembrance Day” in Canada, to commemorate November 11th 1918, the last day of the First World War. Hostilities ceased at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The ending of the war coincided with the season of gratitude implicit in All Saints Day. Outdoor services at 11:00 am on the 11th may include the Last Post and 2 minutes of silence, followed by Reveille and the recitation of the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Artists help us remember, painting portraits of famous people. Composers too. Imagine that you were in the midst of the greatest war anyone had ever seen, your friends were dying, and you wanted them to be remembered.
Maurice Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin” is in a tradition of honouring someone, as the intro in the Dover edition explains:
Formal compositions by his pupils honoring a departed master grew out of an ancient historical tradition. In Europe of the 14th to 17th centuries such works were labeled apothéose (glorification), plainte or déploration (lamentation), or tombeau (literally, a tomb—a monument to the dead). Ockeghem wrote one for Binchois… Josquin for Ockeghem… Gombert for Josquin. Influenced by the music of Corelli, Couperin acknowledged his musical debt in his “Grande Sonate en trio“ entitled Le Parnasse ou l’apothéose de Corelli.
Ravel composed a suite of six movements for piano between 1914 and 1917, and then orchestrated four of them in 1919, omitting two and changing the order.
Each of the six is dedicated to the memory of close friends who died in World War I. Who were they? While their identity might be a mystery, we do have the monuments themselves, like beautiful statues, that might at least give us some idea of what Ravel thought of them. Maybe he simply attached their names, and there’s no connection to the person. Ravel built them with elegant restraint, as balanced and stylish as anything you’d find in a graveyard.
1 Prélude dedicated to Lietenant Jacques Charlot, a composer whose chief claim to fame might be for his solo piano transcription of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. He died in 1915.
2 Fugue dedicated to Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi, son of a prominent politician.
3 Forlane dedicated to Lietenant Gabriel Deluc, a painter killed in 1916. I find this is the most interesting piece, suggesting a quirky intellectual, someone capable of irony. I wonder what kind of conversation one could have had with Gabriel Deluc.
4 Rigaudon dedicated to Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were childhood friends. For this movement at least the suite seems to shake off its seriousness.
5 Menuet dedicated to Jean Dreyfus
6 Toccata dedicated to Captain Joseph de Marliave a famous musicologist who died close to the beginning of the war in August 2014. No wonder Ravel gave him this intricate memorial.
For the orchestral suite of four, the Toccata & Fugue are dropped, leaving the Prélude to begin the suite, then the Forlane, followed by the Menuet and concluding with the boisterous Rigaudon. These men who died were all so young. The painter Deluc was 33 when he died. Musicologist Joseph de Marliave was 41 when he died. No wonder Ravel’s last word should be with this reminder of boys at play.
And perhaps that’s how they should be remembered forever.