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9 min

Two colors: the piano and orchestral versions of Le Tombeau. 

(#8 from Laney’s List)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was meticulous. It’s hard to find a photo in which he’s not wearing a three-piece suit and pocket square, and his music is so tight it squeaks. He wrote slowly, sweating every detail, producing 85 compositions before he died at 62. Mozart by contrast wrote 626 pieces before dying at 35.

Ravel is sometimes lumped in with the Impressionists, and some of his work has that blurred, suggestive quality of impressionism. But more of it is crisp and linear, a return to elements of the style and form of Bach and Mozart that was eventually called Neoclassicism, pushing back against the dismantling of form and tonality by Schoenberg et al. I love and loathe the various fruits of that dismantling project, but for Ravel, I have nothing but love.

He was a stunning orchestrator and spent a great deal of time and energy rewriting piano compositions for orchestra. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is almost unknown in the piano original. What you’ve heard is Ravel’s brilliant orchestration of it. He also took the unusual step of orchestrating a number of pieces that he himself had first written for piano, including the piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917). The piece itself is a remembrance (tombeau) of the Baroque composer François Couperin, but each of the six movements is dedicated to the memory of a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the First World War, published as the war was still busily decimating a generation.

Here are two versions of a short Ravel piece side by side — the first movement of Ravel’s Tombeau for piano, then for orchestra.

RAVEL, “Prelude” from Le Tombeau de Couperin for piano (3:05)

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaCPY4Plg14″ /]

RAVEL, “Prelude” from Le Tombeau de Couperin for orchestra (3:30)

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5vKEjcv9OA” parameters=”start=60″ /]

1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 Debussy | 12 GinasteraFull list YouTube playlist

Ravel portrait by Véronique Fournier-Pouyet, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.