Cinq Pièces Enfantines from Ma Mère L'Oye (Mother Goose)

Maurice Ravel

“Old Mother Goose,

When she wanted to wander,

Would ride through the air

On a very fine gander.

Jack’s mother came in,

And caught the goose soon,

And mounting its back,

Flew up to the moon.”

Several nations claim ownership of the origins of Mother Goose. Mother Goose sometimes has been depicted as a goose or as an English countrywoman, starring as the narrator in 16th century tales of “advice” and fairy stories. Boston has claimed that she was the wife of Mr. Isaac Goose of Massachusetts. France says that the “real Mother Goose” was really the wife of King Robert II of France. One agreed upon fact is that in 1695, Charles Perrault produced fairy tales titled Histories ou contes du temps passé, subtitled “Tales of Mother Goose.”  In 1729, Robert Samber produced a translation in England.  Whatever the authenticity of her origins, Mother Goose’s rhymes and fairy tales captured the imagination of the western world, and she is very much a part of our childhood.

In 1908, the French composer, Maurice Ravel, wrote an exquisite piano suite for four hands based on Mother Goose tales.  A confirmed bachelor, Ravel greatly enjoyed the children of his friends, especially Mimi and Jean Godebski. At this time, the children had started piano lessons, and he wanted to create something especially enticing.  He commented,  “ The idea of conjuring up the poetry of childhood in these pieces has naturally led me to simplify my style and clarify my writing.”  On a more personal level, his biographer, G.W. Hopkins, noted that Ravel had been “somewhat spoiled as a child, and he retained a longing and an affinity for the pure and uncluttered emotional horizons of childhood.  He remained a collector of mechanical and other small-scale bric-a-brac.”  All three elements would attract the composer to spend creative time with Mother Goose. Roland-Manuel, another biographer, stated that “ Ma Mère l’Oye shows us the secret of his profound nature and the soul of a child who has never left fairyland, who does not distinguish between the natural and the artificial and who appears to believe that everything can be imagined and made real in the material world, if everything is infallibly logical in the mind.”  The full ballet contains Ravel’s musical fingerprint at every turn: melodies are clear, the orchestration is elegant, rhythms are precise, and the harmonies evoke a delicate, magical world.

In 1912, the composer orchestrated the four-hand suite for a ballet, which was produced at the Theatre des Arts. He added a Prelude, an opening scene and various interludes.

The Prelude filled with delicately muted fanfares (“the horns of Elfland”) and trembling strings create an atmosphere of expectation before the tale’s beginning. The opening Dance of the Spinning Wheel (Danse du Rouet et Scene) references the story of Princess Florine (at first happily skipping rope and playing) who falls asleep after pricking her finger.  The Good Fairy is called in to watch over her in a twenty-measure tiny Pavane, played by flute and muted violins.  A brief whistle from the Good Fairy, summons two servants and the sleeping princess is put into their care.

After a brief waltz interlude, we arrive at the Conversations between Beauty and the Beast.  A clarinet sings a gentle waltz as Beauty appears. The dialogue assigns instruments to the characters: woodwinds chant the words of the Beauty, and the Beast is represented by contrabassoon.  For a time Beauty rejects the Beast (heavy orchestration) but gradually she begins to flirt and find him more attractive.  An evil spell is magically broken with Beauty’s assertion that “he is not a monster and is not ugly.”  The Beast emerges as a prince (harp glissando and harmonics on solo violin) and the two are linked in happiness (interweaving of parts).

A second interlude leads us to Hop o’My Thumb, (Petit Poucet) derived from Perrault’s baroque anthology of 1697 Ravel commented that as little boy wanders through the woods (wandering scales from violins), “He believed that he would easily find his path by means of his bread crumbs, which he had scattered wherever he had passed; but he was very much surprised when he could not find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten everything up!”  A solo oboe describes the winding course of Hop ‘o my Thumb and the rhythm changes from 2/4, to 3/4, to 5/4 stretching out his walk and indicating confusion. Violin harmonics and trills represent forest birds from the flute.

The third section is also prefaced by an interlude, featuring the harp, coupled with the celesta, playing a melody with a decidedly Oriental character. A flute provides suitable flourishes to open the scene. Its oriental character is further insured by Ravel’s orchestration, which included wood block, glockenspiel, pentatonic melodies and xylophone.  The music depicts Laideronette “Empress of the Pagodas”; cursed into total ugliness by a jealous witch.  A Green Serpent emerges, and the two visit a country inhabited by pagodas (tiny people with bodies made of jewels, crystal and porcelain.) In the end, the Green Serpent turns into a prince; Laideronette’s beauty is restored; and of course, they marry…in the next section.

At this point, Ravel selects the Beauty and the Beast story for a final bow and adds his magical Fairy Garden (Apotheosis). Daylight is breaking (bird calls and twittering) while Prince Charming enters in a slow waltz. He awakens Princess Florine with a kiss, and the Good Fairy (summoned in Part I to protect her during the “deep sleep”) grants them her blessing to marry.  Dancers from the other stories gather around the two, now united by true love, and the orchestra enthusiastically provides glittering fanfares. With wedding bells pealing in the background, “they live happily ever after.”

This Suite for Orchestra selects five elements from the ballet: PavaneTom ThumbLaideronetteBeauty and the Beats, and the Enchanted Garden.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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