The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On Veterans Day, what is the best music to honor fallen soldiers? The Ear chooses Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” Plus, a FREE concert of music for flute and percussion will be held on Friday at noon

November 11, 2015
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features flutist Ivano Ugrcic and percussionist David Alcorn in music by Gareth Farr, Marius Constant, Christos Hatzis and Nebojsa Macura.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Veterans Day.

It has become a day to honor all members, living and dead, of the U.S. armed forces and their service.

That’s just fine with The Ear.

But the holiday started as Armistice Day to honor the end of World War I, which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

world war1 somme

And since the modern world we know is in large effect the result of the outcomes of World War I, The Ear likes going back to the origins.

If you accept that premise -– and of course you don’t have to — it allows us to listen to what is probably the best piece of classical music ever written to honor fallen soldiers. That piece is Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

The title refers to the formal structures that harken back to the underperformed and under-appreciated French Baroque composer Francois Couperin.

Each of the six movements takes a special form and each one is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who was killed in World War I. (Ravel, below, tried to enlist to fight, but was too old.)

Funny, the more I listen, the more the two 20th-century composers who matter most to me are not Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, but Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok.

But elaborating on why is another topic for another post.

ravel

Anyway, Ravel, who was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, orchestrated “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (literally, the tomb of Couperin – “le tombeau” being the word used for an homage to honor the dead that was also used by the French poets to honor other writers or members of the royal family, including Francois Villon, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.)

But The Ear prefers the original piano version, which is very difficult to play. It has color but also a certain clarity and austerity that fit the purpose of the music. He thinks you hear the distinctive dance rhythms better and more sharply, and the sections with tolling bells sounds much more, well, bell-like.

Here, dedicated to all veterans but especially to World War I and what that history-changing meat-grinder of a conflict brought us, is a YouTube video of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”:

 


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