MAURICE RAVEL: Mother Goose Suite

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses Pyrénées, France, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He composed the Mother Goose Suite for piano four-hands in the years 1908–10 and orchestrated sections as a ballet—adding a Prelude and “Spinning-Wheel Dance”—in 1911. The original piano version was premiered by a pair of children, six and seven years old (see below), at a concert of the Société musicale indépendante in Paris in 1910; the ballet version was first performed at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris in January 1912. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), two horns (but no other brass instruments), timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings.

As an adult Ravel could and did understand the world of childhood as few composers before or since. It may be that his empathy came through a shared passion for toys—especially the mechanical kind—or simply because Ravel, who was always painfully sensitive about his small stature, felt more comfortable with persons still smaller than himself. His empathy for a child’s point of view is especially apparent in his masterly and charming opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges, which deals with the experience of a naughty child whose long-mistreated toys come to life to teach him a lesson. It is also revealed in his response to a series of illustrations of French fairy tales, which he used as the basis of a suite of simple four-hands piano pieces called Mother Goose designed as a gift for Mimi and Jean Godebski, the children of his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski. The children were fairly accomplished pianists, but the work Ravel wrote for the two of them to play together risks slightness of substance in its simplicity of technique. Nonetheless it is charming and clearly characterized throughout.

The most famous writer of fairy tales in France was Charles Perrault (1628–1703), who is responsible for adapting many folk tales to the taste of the aristocrats in the court of Louis XIV, among them the stories of Bluebeard and his many wives and Little Red Riding Hood. It was Perrault’s 1697 book Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (Stories or tales of the olden times, with morals) that became known popularly in France as “Mother Goose”; yet Perrault provided only two of the tales for Ravel’s suite and ballet: The Sleeping Beauty and Hop o’ my Thumb. The Countess d’Aulnoy, a contemporary imitator of Perrault, was the source for Laideronnette (The Ugly Little Girl, Empress of the Pagodas); and the familiar tale of Beauty and the Beast came from a later book, Magasin des Enfants, Contes Moraux (Children’s Treasury of Moral Tales) published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757.

The Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty) is a graceful dance, exceedingly brief and almost totally diatonic (this is surprising considering Ravel’s reputation for chromaticism). Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb) is a bit of a narrative of little Hop o’ my Thumb lost in the forest and casting out breadcrumbs to leave a trail that he may retrace, only to find that the birds have eaten them all up. The movement is filled with marvels of ingenious invention: the melody representing Hop proceeds from 2/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 as Hop gets progressively more bewildered and lost; the scattering of crumbs in an unending sequence of thirds from the violins; and the chirping of the birds that eat them up (a complicated series of harmonics).

Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas), after a tale by Mme. d’Aulnoy, indulges in a bit of orientalism (in the original piano version, the upper part was written entirely for the black keys of the piano, automatically producing a pentatonic melody), with repetitive figures in the percussion lending a genuinely eastern air. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) has generally been regarded as the favorite movement of the Suite, if only because of the unchanging popularity of the fairy tale that inspired it. Beauty has a graceful waltz, to which the Beast contributes some inevitable growling. Le jardin féerique (The Enchanted Garden) concludes the Suite with the same utter and quiet simplicity that characterized the opening.

The orchestration of Ravel’s delicate four-hands piano suite came about at the instigation of Jacques Rouché, who was the director of the Théâtre des Arts and who hoped to persuade Ravel to write a full-scale ballet with which French art might compete with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had been enjoying sensational success (with, among other things, the epoch-making early ballets of Stravinsky). The best Rouché could get out of Ravel was the promise to orchestrate Mother Goose into a ballet. For this purpose Ravel devised a frame based on the story of Sleeping Beauty to begin and end the ballet, with the remaining fairy tales becoming, as it were, the dreams of the sleeping princess. In order to accomplish this, Ravel connected the scenes with interludes and added a prologue and a first scene as well. The resulting ballet is more elaborately shaped and thus quite different from the simple orchestration of five little piano pieces. But it is the five-movement suite, Ravel’s original piano work illuminated by his palette of colors bright and muted, that remains best-loved. —© Steven Ledbetter