Notes: November 18

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 in Program Notes
Notes: November 18

November 18, 2016 • Pulling Out All The Stops

Concert program notes by Callista Medland

Le Tombeau de Couperin
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)

ravelMaurice Ravel was born in France in 1875. He began studies in piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory at age 14, where he studied with Gabriel Fauré.

Already a member of the group Les Apaches (The Hooligans), by 1910, he had also joined the Société Musicale Indépendante, which was led by Fauré, his former teacher. The Société put on concerts frequently, and included works by Ravel, Fauré, Zoltan Kodály, Debussy and others.

Ravel’s most famous pieces include Pavane pour une enfante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess), Jeux d’eau (Playing water), the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Bolero. He was generally associated with the Impressionism movement, along with his older contemporary Claude Debussy. Debussy rejected being boxed into such a label, but the movement gained a great deal of momentum and traction regardless.


Ravel’s music output during World War I was considerably lower than at other times in his life, and Le Tombeau de Couperin was one of the only pieces he wrote during that time. Originally written for solo piano, Ravel arranged the suite for orchestra in 1919 (with two fewer movements).

At that time, any piece titled tombeau was a memorial piece. The significance of Couperin in the title has more to do with form than a dedication or memorial to Couperin himself. François Couperin was a baroque composer, and the structure of this piece reflects a baroque dance suite. The actual in memoriam for each movement is as follows:

  • Prélude: in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot
  • Forlane: in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Gaudin
  • Menuet: in memory of Jean Dreyfus (a friend who offered refuge to Ravel as he recuperated after the war)
  • Rigaudon: in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin (brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, both killed in the war)

The orchestral version premiered in 1920. Unlike many typical concertos and symphonies, all four movements are relatively fast, with no largo or adagio. After so much sadness during the war, Ravel intentionally made the piece light-hearted. Orchestration is a little less than ‘standard’ orchestration, with only two horns, one trumpet and no low brass (tuba and trombones). You’ll notice a virtuosic solo oboe part appears throughout the piece.


Organ Concerto in G minor
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), French composer....UNSPECIFIED - 1910: Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), French composer. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Unlike so many famous composers, Francis Poulenc was primarily self-taught, and had his first compositional success at age 18 with the piece Rapsodie Nègre for baritone and chamber group.

While his mother introduced him to piano as a child, his father encouraged him to pursue interests and a career outside of music.

In the 1920s, he was part of Les Six, a group of French composers who associated themselves with surrealism and cubism rather than impressionism, a parallel movement in music to impressionism in the art world.

In the ’30s, Poulenc reconnected with his faith, which carried over into his compositions as well. It was during this period that he wrote the organ concerto you’ll hear tonight. He composed a large body of choral works and songs as well.

Poulenc served for a brief time in World War II, but spent most of the war era in Paris composing songs, many of which were set to the work of poets associated with the Resistance. Some of his work during this time couldn’t be performed in France due to the Nazi occupation. Poulenc visited the U.S. in 1960, where he premiered Gloria, a piece for chorus, orchestra and soprano. Three years later, he suffered a fatal heart attack in Paris.


Premiered publicly in Paris in 1939, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto was written for organ, timpani and strings (no winds/brass). Poulenc kept the instrumentation small with the idea that the piece could be performed in any smaller space with an organ. This was Poulenc’s first time writing for organ so he studied the instrument as he composed the piece.

In form, the piece deviates from a standard concerto with three movements (each having a different tempo, or speed). Instead, it is performed as one continuous movement with seven different tempos to denote the subsections of the piece.


Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ Symphony”
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)

saint-sae%cc%88nsThe very definition of a child prodigy, Saint-Saëns started piano lessons at age 2.5, displayed perfect pitch by 3, and gave his first concert at age 5.

He was also academically gifted, particularly in languages and math. He began studies at the Paris Conservatory in 1848 at age 13. Piano students at the conservatory were generally encouraged to study organ as well, since there was a higher level of demand for court organists than concert pianists.

Saint-Saëns composed two symphonies by the time he was in his 20s. In 1861 he accepted a teaching post at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, where he taught and mentored the young Gabriel Fauré (who went on to become a quite famous and respected composer, best known for his Requiem, nocturnes, and songs). He became a kind of honorary family member to Fauré, who remained an important figure in his life.

At the age of 40, he married Marie Truffot, but the marriage ended five years later as a result of tragedy: both of their children died within six weeks of each other. Despite the dark period that followed, Saint-Saëns composed two of his more famous pieces in the ensuing years (Danse Macabre and Samson et Dalila).

Throughout his life, Saint-Saëns composed in every genre of music: opera, symphonies, songs, concertos, sacred and secular choral music and chamber music. He was somewhat less respected as a composer in his native France than abroad, but he is nonetheless known as one of the greats today.


Saint-Saëns said of this piece: “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”

The first performance of Symphony No. 3 was in 1886 in London’s St James’ Hall with Saint-Saëns conducting. The piece was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and Saint-Saëns dedicated the published score to the memory of the composer Franz Liszt (who died two months after it was premiered).

Despite being labeled “Organ Symphony,” it’s not a piece meant to display virtuosic organ playing like a concerto would be; the organ is really simply a member of the orchestra.

In form the piece is technically in two movements, but maintains a four movement feel like a typical symphony. The orchestration is for a fairly large orchestra, including four hand piano (two players playing the same piano), in addition to the organ.

The first movement opens with a brief introduction, and transitions into a slow section where the organ enters. The second movement starts with a scherzo, and moves into the glorious finale. In the finale, Saint-Saëns incorporates a fugue and chorale that get passed around the orchestra. The piece ends with a triumphant coda in C Major, made all the more exciting by the depth of the organ resonating in the hall.

Buy now for Pulling Out All The Stops