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

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.


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”:



  1. American composer Edward Joseph Collins’s TRAGIC OVERTURE, written shortly after he served in US Army Intelligence on the Western Front during WWI, and championed by Frederick Stock of the Chicago SO. Revised by Collins at the start of WWII, for performance by the Chicago SO in 1943, with Collins conducting.
    After his WWI service, Collins was deeply skeptical of military interventions.

    Comment by Jon Becker — November 11, 2015 @ 11:13 am

  2. Hi, Jake — I agree totally with your commentary and assessment of “Le Tombeau de Couperin”. Also, I’ll add a little-known work: Gail Kubik’s “Four planes, Forty Men — An Elegy”. It’s a solo piano piece from a collection he entitled “Celebrations and Epilogue”, in 1950. For me, it’s a haunting, thoroughly convincing lament, with its floating triads and bluesy hymn in the middle. I think we should also sound out two others in the same vein — Aaron Copland’s “Letter from Home”, and Samuel Barber’s “Night Flight” (actually the middle movement of his Symphony #2). Finally, Britten’s “War Requiem” certainly needs to be mentioned in a thread of this sort.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — November 11, 2015 @ 9:00 am

  3. Good choice.

    Because the next major war will likely be the last one, I would choose Oliver Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

    The wonderful name comes from the Bible, Book of Revelation, with the Angel Gabriel announcing the end of time: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer… ”

    Rev 10:1–2, 5–7

    Messiaen was a French soldier in WWII. In 1940, he was captured by the Nazis and put in a prisoner of war camp, and famously composed this one year later for 3 other musicians who were with him in the camp.

    Hence the unusual orchestration of piano (played by Messiaen), cello, clarinet, and violin. A sympathetic German guard, Mr. Carl Brüll helped Messiaen get paper to write the work and helped protect him (and forged documents so he could eventually leave the camp) so the existence of this work was a collaborative effort of people of good will.

    Here’s a great YouTube of a performance by soloists from the New Philharmonia Orchestra (it also shows the musical notes)(especially recommended are the two Louanges, movements #5 and VIII):

    Comment by fflambeau — November 11, 2015 @ 2:37 am

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