In this suite of dances in 18th-century court style, eight couples are divided into left and right quadrilles. (A quadrille is an 18th-century dance form originating with squadrons at tournaments; it is also referred to as a square dance.) The dancers form geometric patterns — diagonals, diamonds, squares — and dance in unison as well as mimick the movements of the opposing quadrille. “Tombeau” means “memorial” or “tomb.” In 1919, Ravel composed a commemorative suite for piano in six movements (prelude, fugue, forlane, minuet, rigaudon, and toccato) in memory of six friends who died in World War I. In 1920, the composer orchestrated the piece, eliminating the fugue and the toccato. Ravel honors 18th-century French music in general and the French Baroque composer François Couperin in particular; Couperin was court musician and composer to Louis XIV.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in the French Basque town of Ciboure. His family moved to Paris and encouraged him to take piano lessons. At fourteen he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Fauré, who became his principal teacher of composition. His ballet scores include Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, Jeux d’Eau, Bolero, Daphnis and Chloé, Ma Mère L’Oye, and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, a ballet-opera.