A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.
This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.
But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen. Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.
So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”
Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility. And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.
Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.
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