Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Many people have one of those years in which they seem to be firing on all eight cylinders. Being pretty much of an optimist and a “glass-half full” kind of guy, I’ve actually had a number of years like that. I worked my way through college and paid for a semester of study in France; I lived in Algeria and Italy; and I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. All of these occurred in good years. One of the first years that really stood out, however, was 1975, the year I moved into the dorm at Indiana University called the French House.

Over the past month or so, I have written about the wonderful array of characters who lived or hung out there—singers, musicians, language, literature, and history majors. Some of these people became good friends; some kept aloof; others were friendly enough to me but avoided the other people in the clique to which I belonged—the campy cynics. One person I regret not become better friends with was a guy named Kevin, who was majoring in piano.

Like many musicians, Kevin excelled in languages and that brought him to the dorm. He took his piano and other studies seriously but his affable personality contrasted with another musicians in the house, the sneering British violinist named Tony. Kevin might have been gay—he dressed impeccably, always had well-coifed hair, and spoke with a lisp. The members of my clique made a few overtures toward him at the beginning of the semester. They were a bit too catty for him, however, and he stayed away from them. This turned my clique against him, and I seem to remember some nasty scenes between them.

I had a love for piano music, and Kevin often took the time to chat with me about favorite composers. He loved Debussy and Ravel and I believe it was he who introduced me to today’s piece, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. At his senior recital, I believe he played it along with Liszt’s Les Preludes.

I have an overly developed sense of smell and have always been interested in perfumes and colognes. Growing up in a middle class household, the fragrances you get exposed to are strong ones like “Old Spice,” “Brut” and Avon’s “Wild Country.” These are to serious fragrances as country music is to classical music. On one visit with Kevin, he told me about his favorite cologne, Grey Flannel by Geoffrey Beene. That was the first really intricate and complex smell I’d ever encountered. And that was one of the great things about the French House, you could meet people who enthused about things like art, music, foods and smells and no one thought it was weird—no one had yet been beaten down by the drudgery of a nine to five workday and the stereotypical roles imposed by society.

Le Tombeau de Couperin seems to be a good choice for someone who liked Ravel so much, since that composer is well known for his intricate and complex melodies and orchestration. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a work for solo piano in six movement, which has also been transcribed for orchestra and other instruments like guitar. I believe Ravel wrote the piece as an homage to the French composer, Couperin who lived from 1688 to 1733. The first three movements have a kind of somber and sinister feel to them, kind of like you get walking around one of those over-the-top French cemeteries like Pere Lachaise. The third movement “Forlane” has a kind of wry feeling to it, however, almost like a cat slinking among those huge, ornate, wedding cake mausoleums. The perkiest movement however, is the fourth, entitled “Rigaudon”, named after an ancient dance from Provence. It has a playfulness to it that blows away all the cobwebs, despite its stateliness and intricacies.

Kevin did a great job at his recital and then moved to another dorm the next semester. I never saw him again, but I think about him whenever I see the name Geoffrey Beene.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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