Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées.
Died December 28, 1937 in Paris, France.

Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite. Cinq Pièces Enfantines.

Composed: 1908-10, 1911.

First Performances:

The original piano duet was premiered by Christine Verger and Germaine Duramy, (6 and 10 years old!), Salle Gaveau at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante in Paris on April 20, 1910.

The Ballet was first performed at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris on January 28 1912.

The Suite was first performed at Aeolean Hall by the New York Symphony on November 8, 1912.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings.

Duration: ~ 21 min.

Ravel originally composed Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose) in 1908 and 1910 as a suite of four-hand piano pieces. They were written for the children of his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski. The children, Mimie and Jean Godebski, were six and seven years old at the time. The first public performance was given by two other children who were 6 and 10 years old. La pavane de la Belle au bois dormant was written in 1908 as Ravel’s father was dying (He passed away a month later). The other four movements were written in April 1910 with the premiere only days later.

In 1911 Jacques Rouché, who was the director of the Théâtre des Arts, suggested that these piano pieces be reworked into a ballet. Ravel orchestrated them wonderfully. For the ballet he decided to frame the narrative with the story of Sleeping Beauty with which the ballet begins and ends. The remaining stories are cast as the beauty’s dreams. He reordered the movements and added a Prélude and the Danse du Rouet et Scène (Spinning wheel dance and scene) along with linking intermezzos.

The Suite has five movements:

1. La pavane de la Belle au bois dormant
2. Petit Poucet
3. Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes
4. Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête
5. Le jardin féerique

1. La pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty)
The suite begins and ends with the Sleeping Beauty story which is from the collection of stories by Charles Perrault (1628-1703) which he published in 1697 entitled Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralitez (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals) with the subtitle Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oie (Tales of Mother Goose). In this very brief (only 20 measures long) slow movement we hear the Aeolean mode theme played by the flute, with a counter melody played by muted horn and violas.

2. Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb)
The story of Tom Thumb is another story by Charles Perrault. Ravel quotes Perrault in the score: “He believed he would easily find his way back by means of his bread crumbs, which he had scattered as he passed along; but to his surprise he could not find a single crumb, for the birds had come and eaten them up.”
There is quite wonderful scene painting in this movement. We hear Tom’s uncertain wanderings as a meandering melody (first played by a solo oboe) over parallel thirds that doesn’t quite know what meter it belongs in as it moves between 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4. The middle section depicts the birds not only by the obligatory falling minor third cuckoo and trills but also through orchestrational devices such as glissando string harmonics and playing over the fingerboard. The opening theme returns but only to lose its way again at the end.

3. Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes ( Little Ugly One, Empress of the Pagodas)
This movement is from Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s (1650-1705) story Le Serpentin vert (The green serpent). She coined the term Contees de Fée (fairy tale). Ravel quotes her in the score:
“She undressed and entered the bath. Immediately the pagodas, male and female, began to sing and to play on various instruments. Some had theorbos, or lutes, made of walnut shells, others viols made of almond shells. For they were obliged to use instruments proportionate to their shapes and sizes.”

Laideronnette was a beautiful princess until a wicked witch made her ugly. While walking in the forest she came upon a green serpent who told her that he was formerly a handsome prince and that the same witch had cursed him. On one of their walks they encounter living pagodas made of porcelain, crystal, diamonds, and emeralds. Not surprisingly the spell is eventually broken, they marry and live happily ever after.

The pentatonic oriental-ish melody we hear first on on the piccolo was originally written entirely for the black keys of the piano. Ravel’s orchestrational skills are on display here. He shows he difference in timbre between an instrument being made of walnut vs. almond shells by scoring the flute in its lower register as it trades passages with the English horn in its upper register. There is also a bit of parodying Debussy’s Pagodes from his Estampes.

4. Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (The conversations of Beauty and the Beast)
Mouvement de valse très modéré.

This movement comes from a story by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711-1780).
“When I think how, kind-hearted you are, you don’t seem so ugly.”
“Yes, it is true, I have a kind heart. Still, I am a beast.”
“Many men are more beastly than you.”
“If I were witty I would think up a fine compliment by way of thanks, but I am only a beast.”
“Beauty, will you be my wife?”
“No, Beast!”
“I die happy because I have had the pleasure of seeing you again.”
“No, my dear Beast, you shall not die. You shall live to be my husband!”

The Beast vanished and at her feet she saw a prince as beautiful as the God of Love. The prince thanked her for breaking the spell laid upon him.

Ravel acknowledged Satie as the “grand-papa” of this movement which resembles a Gymnopédie. The Beauty is initially portrayed by the solo clarinet with a graceful waltz. As the movement progresses she moves to solo flute then solo oboe. The Beast is perfectly described as a ponderous and awkward contrabassoon. We hear the breaking of the beast’s spell as a cymbal crash. The beauty is now a solo violin and the beast a solo cello.

5. Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden)
Lent et grave. C major 3/4
The final movement revisits Sleeping Beauty and returns to the mood of the first movement. In this movement Sleeping Beauty is awakened by Prince Charming. The celesta depicts the princess as she slowly opens her eyes amid a wonderful crescendo. A fanfare announces the end as the Good Fairy gives the couple her blessings.