1875 – 1937
“Ma Mere L’Oye” (Mother Goose Suite) 1910
Youngster Maurice Ravel was musically gifted and destined for a music career from early childhood. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 14 where he studied for the next 15 years. From the beginning of his musical career Ravel followed a clear, direct path. He learned through studies of the classics that in order to know one’s own technique, one must learn the technique of others; no one ever finishes the jobs of learning and shaping a technique or a style.
The shy composer avoided tragedy in his art; his favorite themes dealt with Spanish rhythm, dance, comedy and enchantment. Ravel’s natural gift for orchestration and musical “coloring” created scores that were unmatched for his brilliant use of instrumental timbres. His music has been compared to French gardens in which trees and shrubs are trimmed to precise shapes and flowers are laid out in well-ordered patterns. He took painstaking time to polish each work to a shimmering crown of jewels; as a result the composer’s life-long output totaled fewer than 70 works.
Ravel was a complex, sensitive person with an unusual fascination with the world of children. A life-long collector of toys, he also loved children’s stories and illustrations, and often sneaked away from social get-togethers to play with the toys and games of youngsters in residence.
In 1908 the composer wrote a children’s piano duet for two of his young friends. The work consisted of five tableaus from ancient French fairy tales that dealt with moralistic issues. In translation the suite is “The Mother Goose Suite,” but the composer singled out a single image from each story rather than musically illustrate the whole plot. His representations are the musical equivalent of watercolors and etchings and contain a complete range of dynamics and emotion.
- I. Pavane of the Sleeping Princess – This presents a graceful, ancient dance by attendants surrounding the Sleeping Princess Florine. Both flute and harp are featured prominently in this baroque dance.
- II. Little Tom Thumb – Tom’s frustrated wanderings in the woods are depicted by continual meter changes by string passages, while the woodwinds play a quiet “walking” melody. Twittering birds (flute, piccolo) swoop down to steal the crumbs left to mark his return path.
- III. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas – Exotic Javanese music paints a picture of the little empress taking her bath while her pagodes (tiny munchkin-like people) sing and play on their miniature percussive instruments. The musical flavor is turn-of-the-century orientalism styled by pentatonic scales.
- IV. Beauty and the Beast – The clarinet represents Beauty in the tempo of a waltz, while the role of the Beast is assumed by a contrabassoon. A dialogue between the two alternates between brusque growls and lilting melodies. After a loud climax and a measure of silence, an expressive solo violin announces with a delicate glissando the change of the Beast into a handsome prince. A moment before this, Beauty had decided that she would marry the beast because of his inner beauty and kindness.
- V. The Enchanted Garden – Everyone lives happily and in peace in this musically delicate watercolor depicting the splendor of an enchanting fairyland. The music builds to a grand fanfare celebrating that all is good and beautiful.