Analysis of the Fugue from Le Tombeau de Couperin by
Maurice Ravel

Timothy Smith


The tradition of fugal composition has extended itself throughout western musical history since it was mastered by J.S. Bach in the baroque period.  Throughout the centuries that followed Bach’s death, the form and use of fugue was adapted by composers to fit their particular styles and purposes.  It is evident that the qualities of fugal writing were considered appealing enough that composers would often go to great lengths to study and master the art of writing fugues.  Maurice Ravel was no exception to this tradition, as he too composed a fugue in his own style:  the second movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin written for solo piano.


It would seem however, that the very nature of fugue is inconsistent with the ‘impressionist’ compositional style that characterizes Ravel’s music.  Although Ravel did not like to consider himself an impressionist, he did embody many of the characteristics we now associate with impressionism, such as extended harmonies, fluidly changing melodic and harmonic content, and an avoidance of strong pulse.  How then does Ravel go about composing a convincing fugue while still maintaining his identity as a composer?  His fugue is a masterful blending of fugal and impressionist compositional techniques that create a fugue that is both authentic and uniquely conceived. 


The key to this blending of styles is the way in which Ravel allocates different levels of the composition to the two genres.  The outer form is clearly that of a fugue, marked by points of imitation, a plan of entries, episodes, and a climax.  Within this context he uses such familiar techniques as stretto, counter exposition, and pedal point.  Meanwhile, the inner form is defined by Ravel’s own ambiguous tonal and harmonic style.  This characteristic ambiguity, which inevitably provokes images of impressionist art as a whole, is extended into Ravel’s use of rhythm.  By assigning the contrasting characteristics of the two styles to two levels of the music, Ravel is thus able to present them simultaneously without compromising the integrity of either one.  The goal of this essay is to explore in detail the specific ways in which Ravel balances fugal and impressionist compositional techniques in this work.


The overall design of the fugue can be described as a three-part form.  This form is thus broken down into an Exposition (and subsequent counter-exposition), a development, and an ending (including a coda).  Such a design allows for a natural narrative growth in the work, introducing the material in the exposition, building tension through transformations of the material towards a climax in the development, and a resolution of this material in the ending.  This form is quite common in traditional baroque fugues, and helps to identify a piece to the listener as a true fugue.  In the years leading up to this work, it was not uncommon for composers to stray quite far from the traditional overall form, thus making Ravel’s decision to use a conventional three-part form a deliberate and important one.




The traditional layout of subjects and answers that opens a fugue is perhaps the most evident feature that identifies a fugue to the listener.  Ravel’s exposition, beginning in m.1 and ending on the down-beat of m.9, is predictably structured in its presentation of material.  The entries begin with the subject in the soprano, followed by the answer in the alto, and finally the subject in the bass.  Each subject or answer occupies two measures, and is followed by a two-measure bridge which cadences on m.9.  In m.4, the counter-subject material is introduced.  This material is also the defining motive in the bridge in mm.7-8.  


The subject (mm.1-2) contains three major characteristics that distinguish it from a typical fugue subject.  These characteristics give the subject an ambiguous quality that suggests an impressionist’s style.  First, almost all of the notes that make up the subject are taken from the e minor triad.  In fig.1 we can see that only the two A pitches that open each measure are not from the triad, and that they are not emphasized melodically or rhythmically.  This is contradictory to other fugue subjects, which tend to be much more melodic, and have an implied harmonic motion, most typically outlining I-V-I.  Second, the subject begins with fa-me in E minor before outlining the E minor triad.  This emphasis on the third of the scale in A minor mode gives the listener the immediate impression that perhaps the piece is in G major and that the scale degrees are in fact re-do.  It is a well known rule among composers of fugues that a subject should emphasize the tonic or the dominant, and that dwelling on the third such as this will confuse the listener, as well as create tonal problems for the answer.  The fugue composed by Rimsky-Korsakov and analyzed in this journal by Kate Davies is another example of a fugue where the subject begins on the third in a minor key, giving the strong impression of the relative major.  The third technique Ravel employs to add ambiguity to the subject is found in its rhythmic structure.  In m.1 the subject begins with an eighth-note rest followed by two eighth notes which emphasize beat two.  In m.2 this same figure begins directly on the down beat, thus omitting the rest.  This emphasizes the up beat of beat one in that bar, giving the figure a syncopated accent.  This shifting of repeated material within the subject onto the off beat is an effective tool in disorienting the listener.  It is only at the end of the subject when the answer is stated that the listener can identify exactly where the down beat is located.  The subject therefore is able to confuse the listener, giving the distinct effect of an impressionist work, while still being applicable to the rest of the work in the traditional sense.  Since the subject is almost entirely a triad arpeggio, Ravel included staccatos to give the subject a more distinct sound.  This allows the subject to stand out later in the work.




The answer occurs in mm.3-4, and repeats exactly the same intervals found in the subject, making it a real answer.  This is an unexpected event however, because in order for it to be considered a real answer, the leading tone must not be raised.  In fig.1 we can see that the D pitches are in fact not raised.  This means that the answer outlines a minor V chord, which is an indication that this work will not be following a traditional tonal structure.  The lack of raised 7ths means that the piece is in fact in the key of E natural minor.  Ravel chose to use a natural minor key to once again disorient the listener.  The D naturals in the answer suggest that this music may be in the key of G major.  The listener is left feeling unsure of the tonal centre.  However, the emphasis on the E minor triad in the subject is the clearest indication that the work is in fact in E minor. 


The motive in the treble voice in m.4 is the theme that Ravel will use throughout the work as episodic material, and the material that I will be labelling as the counter subject.  I refer to this material as the counter subject because it occurs in both this instance and during the second subject statement in the exposition.  It also occurs against the subject and answer statements in the counter-exposition.  This motive is unique due to its eighth-note triplets found on beat three.  The triplets are themselves another tool Ravel employs to disorient the listener.  The fact that the triplet occurs against two eighth notes weakens the sense of pulse while still maintaining the rhythmic drive of the music.  Like the staccatos in the subject, this triplet will also serve to expose the counter subject throughout the work.  In essence, the triplet acts to destabilize the listener’s sense of pulse, while also establishing the presence of the motive in the music, hence stabilizing the listener’s sense of form.


Fig.2 shows how Ravel extends this use of minor V into the bridge at the end of the exposition.  The fourth beat of m. 7 is an F# minor chord which serves as an applied minor V chord of B minor.  The fourth beat of measure 8 has a similar cadence to end the exposition, with a D major chord resolving to the tonic minor chord on the down beat of m. 9.  The D major chord could be analysed as a bVII chord, or in my opinion more appropriately interpreted as a minor V7 chord missing the root, thus forming a perfect cadence to end the exposition.  Ravels decision to omit the B pitch from this cadence further draws the listener’s ear to G major, making the cadence sound quite similar to a deceptive cadence, V-vi in the key of G.  This duality of the cadence distorts its meaning and confuses the listener.  Together, this allows the perfect cadence that closes the exposition to be in fact quite weak, allowing for a fluid transition into the counter-exposition. 



I include the counter-exposition in the first part of the three part form of this work.  In this case the counter-exposition, which occupies mm.9-14, serves to give the exposition balance by reiterating the subject statements in a new order.  This balance is necessary due to the fact that there were only three entries in the exposition.  This therefore allowed for only one statement of the counter subject against the subject.  As an extension of the exposition, this counter-exposition has no cadence to define its ending, and instead flows directly into the development.  This is another way in which Ravel is able to blur the overall form of the work by manipulating its content.  To further the growth of the music’s narrative, Ravel includes two chromatic passages in the counter-exposition to develop it out of the exposition, which itself contained very few altered notes.




The development of this fugue spans the majority of the piece, beginning at m. 15 and concluding at m. 53.  The subject and the counter subject are the two main motives that Ravel uses to define the development.  As mentioned earlier, each of these motives contain characteristics which serve to disorient and confuse the listener, as well as characteristics which serve to clearly identify the presence of the motive within thick textures.  Ravel transforms these motives throughout the development, leading to an eventual climax of the work.  These transformations occur in a systematic and organized fashion, giving the section a clear sense of narrative growth.  The formal layout of the development in this fugue is quite typical of fugal composition.  By using this traditional approach to form the development, Ravel maintains the integrity of the work as a fugue.  Throughout the development, the inner structure is still very much impressionist as a result of the motives and harmonic structure.  A breakdown of the transformations can be viewed in Ex.1. 




Ravel begins the development by stating the subject and answer in the relative G major key.  This is made clear by the use of fa-mi to open the subject, similar to the subject statement at the beginning of the piece.  The subject is stated in the relative major twice and is then balanced by a three measure episode defined by the counter subject motive. 


The following statement of the material presents the subject in its inversion.  Fig.3 shows mm.22-25 in which the subject is stated twice in the key of C major.  Another unique characteristic of these four measures is that the answer is stated before the subject.  This helps to separate this section from the one that preceded it, and to further the dramatic content.  These four measures are balanced by the four measures that follow which contain three statements of the counter subject, two of which are inverted to correlate with the two inverted subject statements. 




Fig.4 shows the cadence at the end of m. 29 leading into m. 30.  This cadence is particularly strong, and separates the inverted subject section of the development from the material that follows.  This cadence is important in the overall form for several other reasons as well.  This marks almost the exact centre of the work, and therefore serves to separate the material that follows it from the first half of the work.  The cadence itself is an applied minor V chord resolving on to major V chord in the key of E minor.  This is the first of only two instances in which we find the raised 7th degree of the scale.  This centres the listener back into the key of E minor for the next section.




The following section is only three measures long and relates itself to both the relative major section and the inverted subject section.  This section is marked by three false entries of the subject occurring over the counter subject.  The false entries are in the key of E minor and are presented V-III-i.  The fact that the subject is presented in the relative major, connects this material to the first section of the development, and the fact that the answer is presented first relates this section with the only other time that this took place, in the inverted section. 


Ex.2 shows how the three false entries balance with the three statements of the counter subject in mm.26-29.  The two exterior statements are related either by key or by their inversion, and the third and central statement is contrasting. 




The section in mm.30-33 also contains another defining characteristic:  the dominant pedal note that occurs in the bass.  This pedal emphasizes the fact that the piece is in the key of E minor and provides another opportunity for Ravel to incorporate a fugal device into the outer structure of the work.  This pedal point continues through two measures of counter subject stretto as well as the stretto section which follows, thereby linking these three sections. 


Mm.39-43 represent the penultimate transformation of the subject and counter subject material, and the last statement before the climax of the piece.  Here the subject and counter subjects are presented in the subdominant minor and in its relative major, as well as in inversion and in stretto, representing an amalgamation of the three transformations that have already occurred in the development.  Fig.5 shows the bass entry outlining the A minor triad while the soprano voice is outlining the C major triad, both in inversion, and occurring in close stretto. 




The climax of the movement occurs during the course of mm.44-53.  It is here that Ravel introduces the subject in E major followed by the answer in B major.  However, the harmonies below these statements suggest an entirely different tonal centre.  Fig.6 shows mm.44-45.  Although the subject is clearly stating an E major triad, the only accidental necessary to accomplish this is G#.  These two measures contain both F naturals and C naturals, suggesting the key is in fact A minor.  This subject statement is actually a dominant arpeggio in a minor rather than a tonic triad in the parallel major.  The following subject statement found in mm.48-49 is similar to that in mm.44-45 in that the subject is in fact the dominant triad in the key of E minor.  It is here that we therefore find the presence of the raised 7th degree in E minor for the second time.  This not only relates this section to the cadence that occurred at the mid point of the piece, it also marks the climax of the motivic transformations.  It is only for this brief period between mm.48-49 that the piece is definitely perceived as in the key of E minor.  This is immediately disassembled by a cascading series of subject statements that descend to end the development.





The ending is divided into two sections.  Mm.54-57 represent the conclusion of the piece, and mm.58-61 represent the coda. 


The conclusion is related to the material that precedes it in two distinct ways.  By being based entirely on counter subject material, it balances the descending passage that ended the development which was entirely subject material.  The upwards motion of the conclusion is necessary since the descent of the material at the end of the development left the listener in the lower register of the piece.  For the music to continue, it has to ascend once again.


The result of this ascent is the need for a coda to resolve the high register.  Ravel separates this material from the rest of the fugue by assigning it a slower tempo.  There are no other tempo changes in the work, and the slower tempo singles this section out as being individual and unique in the context of the entire work.  Both the subject and answer are stated in close stretto, each lasting two measures.  This is the first time that all three voices are represented equally in stretto, further separating this material from the rest of the work.




If one were to go back and separate my references in this analysis to the outer form from my references to inner form, one would find the outer form remarkably similar to countless fugues written in the baroque period.  By adhering to the traditional outer form of the fugue, Ravel ensured the integrity of his fugue as a whole.  It is within the confines of this outer form that Ravel explored his own compositional style by manipulating the inner form.  This provided Ravel with a compositional environment where he could separate the two levels of composition entirely.  Had he extended his impressionist style too far into the outer form, the essence of the fugue would have been lost. 


The challenge that met Ravel when he composed this work is similar to the challenge that every composer faces when trying to write a fugue in a contrasting style.  How can the composer assimilate the stylistic elements of fugue without losing ones own identity?  Ravel solved this problem through the clever balance of form versus tonal and harmonic content, and the result is a unique and brilliant composition.

Copyright 2003 by Timothy Smith