Carleton College hosts the SPCO — Beethoven/5: Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto

  • Jonathan Biss


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Maurice Ravel

Le tombeau de Couperin

Modeled after the Baroque dance suite, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin pays homage, not specifically to François Couperin, but rather to eighteenth-century French music at large. Nevertheless, it does bear the imprint of Couperin, the forlane rondeau finale of whose Concert Royaux No. 4 Ravel closely studied and transcribed while preparing to compose his Tombeau.

As Ravel began work on Le Tombeau de Couperin, Europe became swept up in the First World War. This seismic event acutely affected Ravel. In a letter to his student Roland-Manuel dated October 1, 1914, the composer noted numerous works in progress, including the Piano Trio, a piano concerto, two operas, and other large-scale works. But the war hampered Ravel’s productivity: of these and other projects, he only completed the Piano Trio, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the famous symphonic work La Valse. His mind was squarely on the war during these years, and in 1916, he himself enlisted as an ambulance driver. When he finally completed Le Tombeau in 1917, Ravel attached a second commemorative significance to the work: each movement bears a dedication to a comrade who had fallen during the war.

The Prélude is dedicated “To the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot.” Prior to the war, Charlot had worked for Durand, Ravel’s publisher, and prepared a solo piano transcription of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’oye. The Prélude combines the liveliness of Couperin’s and Scarlatti’s sprightly keyboard works with Ravel’s modern harmonies.

The Forlane honors Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a friend from Ravel’s native Basque region. The movement’s piquant melodic and rhythmic profile are perhaps a nod to that area’s folk music.

The tender-hearted Menuet is dedicated “To the memory of Jean Dreyfus.” During the war, Ravel had become especially close with Dreyfus’s family when he was temporarily discharged from military service following an operation for dysentery. Ravel recuperated at the Dreyfus family home, where he completed work on Le Tombeau.

The Rigaudon bears an especially poignant dedication: it eulogizes Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, childhood friends of Ravel and brothers who were killed during the war by the same shell. The movement begins with mirthful exuberance. Ravel offsets this joie de vivre with a more introspective middle section, but the dance returns, and the work ends in high spirits. When questioned about the work’s conspicuous lack of elegiac music in commemorating the fallen, Ravel explained, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Patrick Castillo ©2014

About This Program

Pianist Jonathan Biss and conductor Mischa Santora lead the SPCO in an appearance at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Biss takes on second installment in the Beethoven/5 project, which pairs newly composed piano concertos with the Beethoven concertos that inspired them. Beethoven’s lively Piano Concerto No. 1 is the subject of this concert, performed alongside the world premiere of City Stanzas, a concerto by British composer Sally Beamish.

Please note: This concert is free and open to the public.


SPCO concerts are made possible by audience contributions.


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