You’re in a room with your family at Christmas. Everybody’s home. There’s lots of food and laughter to go around and joy is in the air. Your daughter brings the family photo album and places it on your lap. She crawls under your right arm and tells you she wants to hear stories about everyone in the room. You smile and skim through the photos. Some of the people in the photos are in the room with you, by the fireplace, under the mistletoe, giggling in the kitchen. Some are not.
Looking at the photo of a person who is in the room with you is very different from looking at the photo of a person who’s no more. Nostalgia and memory have a way of being distinct in such moments.
I’ve always been freaked out by the idea that photographs exist, moments captured in time. The best photographs, however, are not ones that capture but ones that host memories. It’s graceful. It’s like the memory walked into the photograph of its own volition. There’s no hint of forced retention. It is but a moment that floods. It reminds me of Impressionist paintings. Their subjects were not mythical in nature but local; captured as a moment of the fleeting. This is the very thing we find cameras do well.
This brings me to Ravel, one of the greatest composers of all time. Here’s a video by Nahre Sol if you want to have some idea about who Ravel is:
This is the first piece from Ravel that I listened to. It was performed by Martha Argerich and it absolutely blew me away. I’m not classically trained and I have no idea what the technical difficulties are when it comes to composing or performing a piece like this but the passion that I felt as I listened to it was so powerful and pure. It was almost like somebody had taken a perfect photo of me and I was falling into it, experiencing all the intricacies of movement made still.
Many people don’t consider Ravel to be an Impressionist even though he is from that period. But if you ask me if I think Ravel is an Impressionist, I wouldn’t know how to say he isn’t.
This post is about Le Tombeau de Couperin, which l was listening to the other day.
I, being the philistine I am, had no clue what it was about. I was just another musician enjoying music. But as I listened to it, an image started forming in front of me. Unlike the usual visions I have, this was a still image. There was no movement. It was almost like a painting. Bright colours were set against dull and the brushstrokes were conspicuous but not messy.
What I saw first was a girl in a bright red dress. She was picking flowers in a garden and she seemed very happy, blissful at least. There were houses in a light beige in the background. She wasn’t looking at anything. Her eyes were set on something above the horizon. After lingering on her for a few moments, I was taken to another still image. This was of an old man. His clothes were not in focus but his face was; extremely so. He had a very thin beard and for some reason that seemed important. He had a worn hat on his head and he was holding a shovel. He was not using it but had stuck it into the ground. His right hand was still on the shovel but he was looking at something. The moment I asked myself what he was looking at, I was shown another image. This time, a baby in swaddling cloth was lying on the bank of a very shallow stream of water. Then, for a moment all these images came together. The old man was working in the garden where the girl in red was. He would stop working now and then and smile at the girl. Then he would look at the baby. The baby was far away from him; over a broken fence and across a shallow stream, on the the other bank. There was a certain pain in his eyes when he looked at the girl and the baby, the kind of pain that doesn’t hurt but rather presents itself as an opportunity for you to be aware of how deeply you can feel. I didn’t know why he felt this.
This vision was so powerful that I decided to look up what the piece of music was about. Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917, during the First World War. The word ‘tombeau’ in the title is a musical term popular from the 17th century, meaning “a piece written as a memorial”. I found that you’re supposed to use the word ‘suite’ and not ‘piece’ although the latter still makes sense in a way. Each movement is dedicated to the memory of a friend of the composer who had died fighting in World War 1. The music, however, doesn’t feel like it’s about death per se. This was intentional according to Ravel. He said, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”. His aim, which he made clear, was to pay homage to the Baroque French suite sensibilities. At least according to Wikipedia it was.
When I found this out, suddenly the pain in the eyes of the old man seemed to make sense. So did the baby, the broken fence, and the thin beard.
Nahre Sol, in the video I linked above, talks about how Ravel’s music has a certain melancholy to it. I would take this further in the case of Le Tombeau de Couperin and associate it with the fusion of the pain of lost childhood/innocence with the perception of childhood from a place far removed temporally. Imagine a veteran of a horrific war looking at a girl in a red dress picking flowers unaware of how dark the world really is. The thin beard also made sense in this context. Thin beard is more abrasive/rough while a full beard is soft. I also associated the broken fence with the destruction of the war. It seemed right to do so. The baby is even farther removed from the old man, born beyond the fence into a broken world, one that has no explanation for the destruction.
When I learned that it was dedicated to a soldier who had died in war, I felt that this was such a perfect way of keeping him alive. It’s like Ravel took a photo of him dying on the battlefield and a photo of him as a veteran who survived the war and then fused the two together.
Let me take you back to the scene I constructed for you at the beginning of this post. Looking at the photo of a person who is in the room with you is very different from looking at a photo of a person who’s no more. If a photograph is a memory, then does the photo become truer in some way if the person is no more? I don’t think so. However, if the person is no longer in the world, then they are only in your memories. They are only in the photograph. When you look at it, you not only feel nostalgic but you also attach a value to it that can only be given after the death of someone you love.
The joy of the past, when it is lost, will turn into care for the people you shared it with. But when they are no more, it turns into care for their photographs.
The photograph becomes important.
In presenting the death of a friend as a memory that has little to do with the very death of the person and everything to do with looking at loss like the old man looks at the girl in the red dress (the girl is like the photograph in this case) or the way one looks at the photograph of a loved one who has passed away, Ravel makes the music a focal point. When listening to his music, I don’t think of the people I’ve lost but I feel for the music what I would feel if I looked at a photograph of my grandfather who died a few years ago.
To me, the music is not saying “Couperin is dead” or “how sad is it that Couperin is dead?”. What I hear is “Music is a memory! Celebrate it!”.
If Le Tombeau de Couperin was a photograph, I would place it back in my photo album the way I would put back a photo of my grandfather. With care.
It’s not easy to do that.
Le Tombeau de Couperin is not about the dead, it’s about how important the photographs of them are. This makes Ravel an Impressionist if you ask me. He celebrates the moment, and more importantly, the medium that captures it. He might only be using loss and death to inspire value but they are presented with all the more depth for it.
Ravel’s intention was the celebration of music. But he didn’t have to tell me about Couperin to make me understand that. That’s how good he is.
This is why I love Ravel.
About the artwork:
In the artwork, you’ll see the girl in the red dress on the left and the baby, who becomes a boy in the artwork, on the right. The broken fence and a flower also make an appearance. I wanted to show the thin beard but didn’t know how to. My skills are limited. This is not at all what I saw but this is the best I could do with my skills.