France has rich cultural traditions in cuisine, language, viticulture and of course the visual and performing arts. In music, France has always revered the great composers of its golden Baroque era: from Jean-Baptiste Lully in the late 17th century to François Couperin "Le Grand" and Jean-Philippe Rameau in the first half of the 18th century.
Maurice Ravel was educated with great respect and love for this rich musical legacy. His Le Tombeau de Couperin is a collection of dances and other musical forms that reached their apogee in the compositions of his Baroque predecessors. The piece originally appeared in 1918 as a six-movement suite for solo piano. The following year, Ravel orchestrated four of its movements in the version we hear.
The word tombeau, as its spelling suggests, means tomb or grave; however, the French term connotes ‘homage’ or ‘tribute’ as well. Ravel was paying his respects not only to Couperin, but also to French Baroque heritage. His neoclassical choice of older dance forms as an instrumental suite are obvious bows to the earlier era. Preludes were a standard opening movement to an instrumental suite. The forlane is an Italian dance with possible Slavic roots as well; it is related to the gigue and passamezzo and shares their 6/8 meter. The rigaudon is an ancient Provençal dance that was beloved to Ravel, and the menuet needs no introduction.
There is another layer of meaning in Le Tombeau de Couperin: each movement bears a dedication to a friend of Ravel's who died in combat during the First World War. A melancholy streak is particularly evident in the two inner movements, Forlane and Menuet. Ravel's musical language is contemporary, although he adheres to the formal demands of the older dances. His remarkable gift for orchestration brings Le Tombeau de Couperin vividly to life with deft touches of instrumental color, particularly in the woodwinds and brass.
For many years the source of the nickname "Jupiter" for Mozart's last symphony was unknown. An arrangement of the work for piano, four-hands was published in England around 1820 with the sobriquet, but with no explanation. Mozart's symphony is mentioned in the diaries of Vincent and Mary Novello, a 19th-century English couple who traveled widely and interviewed the composer's widow Constanze in 1829. According to them, the nickname was bestowed by Johann Peter Salomon, the entrepreneur responsible for Haydn's two visits to London in the 1790s.
No doubt Salomon was struck, as we must be, by the ceremonial and grand effects of this C major symphony. Assertive and forthright from its opening, it is music of majesty and sweep, convincingly bringing to mind the king of the ancient Roman gods. The slow movement is a standout. Ivor Keys calls it:
the apotheosis of the ornate song which bewitched Mozart since his Italian days. To the beauty of sound of the muted violins is added the woodwind counterpoint featured in so many concertos, but added to this is a new rhythmic dimension sometimes highlighted by unexpected harmony.
Mozart's syncopations and unexpected accents add to the effect.
The "Jupiter" is justly famed for its finale. Mozart had developed an interest in the music of Bach and Handel, which manifested itself in the contrapuntal fabric of this splendid conclusion. The finale is a complex amalgam of double fugue and a sonata movement. Miraculously, Mozart makes this formidable intricacy sound perfectly wonderful. His superb craft reaches its peak in the magnificent coda, where five principal themes are interwoven in one of music's greatest triumphs.
During the 19th century, German and Austrian musicians referred disparagingly to England as "das Land ohne Musik" -- the land without music. Most of the great composers who flourished in England, such as Handel, J.C. Bach and Mendelssohn, had come from the continent. Elgar was a pivotal figure in the renaissance in English composition. His Enigma Variations made him a national celebrity.
This remarkable score bears the inscription "Dedicated to my friends pictured within." Over the first page, the word "Enigma" appears. Each of the 14 variations is titled either with a monogram or a nickname referring to members of Elgar’s circle. Thus "C.A.E." of the first variation is his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar; Variation II's "H.D.S.-P." is Hew David Steuart-Powell, pianist in Elgar's trio (along with "B.G.N.," Basil Nevinson, the cellist and subject of Variation XII), and so forth. Many of his Worcestershire friends thereby achieved a measure of immortality.
Collectively Elgar’s musical portrait gallery is a treasure trove of brilliant character sketches, despite his insistence that his work was absolute music to be considered independently of those who had inspired it. William Meath Baker, the "W.M.B." of Variation IV, is said to have been a decisive, athletic man who went about life with great physical flourishes punctuating his activities; his variation is appropriately resolute. Isabel Fitton, the "Ysobel" of Variation VI, was a viola student of Elgar's; her lyrical, gentle variation features a viola solo and allegedly satirizes technical problems in her string playing that she never overcame.
Contemporaries described Arthur Troyte Griffith ("Troyte," Variation VII) as an argumentative type. Elgar paints him with vigorous timpani, then brasses in animated dialogue with rapid violin triplets; this is a true virtuoso variation, enough to convince us that Troyte was a formidable opponent in debate!
"Dorabella" (Variation X) was Elgar's pet name for Dora Penny, the youngest member of his circle included in the Enigma Variations. Her nickname was a conscious allusion to Mozart's Così fan tutte; her variation has the airy delicacy of the ballet music from Ponchielli's La Gioconda or Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Sprightly, chirping fillips of woodwinds and strings in “Dorabella” invite choreography; it comes as no surprise that Frederick Ashton created a ballet from Elgar's piece in 1968.
The central variation, “Nimrod,” refers to August Johannes Jaeger, Elgar’s advocate at the London music publishing house of Novello (“Jaeger” means hunter in German). "Nimrod" is said to have been inspired by an evening walk during which Jaeger waxed poetic about Beethoven's slow movements. Surely it is no accident that Elgar placed this variation in E-flat major, Beethoven’s heroic key. Many listeners perceive a strong similarity between the "Nimrod" variation and the famous slow movement to Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata.
Technically, what makes the Enigma Variations so marvelous is a combination of splendid orchestration, careful gauging of key changes, and brilliant transitions from one variation to the next. Spiritually, what binds it is the overriding affection Elgar had for his friends. Variation XIV, "E.D.U." (Alice's pet name for her husband was "Edu") binds the set together in exuberant conclusion, as if to say "Lucky me, that my life is enriched by these wonderful people." Whether heard as an independent piece of music or in the context of Elgar's musical portrait gallery, the Enigma Variations is one of the masterpieces of the repertoire, and Elgar's finest composition.
© Laurie Shulman, 2019