I played Maurice Ravel's piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin at my very first conservatory recital. Looking back, I'm hard-pressed to imagine a better training piece, with its inherent challenges of technique, style, color and rhetoric. As I recall, I easily fell in love with the rippling melodies in the opening Prelude.
As sepulchral a title as Le Tombeau de Couperin might seem — in English, it means Couperin's Tomb, after 17th-century composer Francois Couperin — the musical term suggests more of an homage in memoriam than a funereal dedication. This Prelude was dedicated to World War I Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, who arranged Ravel's Mother Goose Suite for piano four-hands. Throughout Ravel's music, one feels his reverence for past masters as much as his empathy for the timeless universality of musical expression. Ravel poured his music into crucibles of antiquity.
The true son of an engineer, his fascination with elegance and function runs as a constant in his music. The Prelude's machine-like rhythms interlock with reharmonizations, an effervescent Baroque filigree and even a kind of cabaret insouciance.
I came back to Le Tombeau at the piano because I knew it would provide insight for my conducting debut, leading the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ravel's orchestral version of the suite. Recast for large ensemble, each voice is individuated, each instrumental choice wrought in service of its motives and unique harmonic recasting. It was an inspirational call to strive for the most distinctive etching of line possible when returning to the piano original I fell in love with all those years ago.
Christopher O'Riley is a concert pianist and the host of the radio and television program From the Top.