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Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3 = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, tam-tam, whip, ratchet, cheese grater, wood block, wind machine, antique cymbals, slide whistle, and xylophone), celesta, harp, piano, strings, chorus, and vocal soloists. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.
There are nearly nine pages of entries devoted to recordings of Maurice Ravel’s music in the Schwann guide to CDs, yet in contrast to this abundance the entire catalog of the composer’s works occupies less than one page of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The disparity points up the obvious: the impressive popularity of a distinctly low-yield creative artist, one for whom precision, elegance, and perfection of form clearly precluded the ability to be prolific. Even among the limited number of works in Ravel’s catalog, one finds cross-pollination, i.e., many pieces written originally for piano appear also in the orchestral category, having been orchestrated by this genius of instrumental color.
Inasmuch as the Ravel most of us know and love is the composer of the lush and sensuous music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, of the two virtuosic piano concertos, of the roof-raising orchestral works La valse and Boléro, one can reasonably ask, what is this composer doing writing a fantasy opera in which a teapot and a cup foxtrot and then sing ragtime, and two cats sing a duet in authentic cat language? The answer is, revealing an important part of his personality. The fact is that Ravel was at once the most sophisticated and child-like of men. As is so often the case with retiring bachelors, he loved children and found communication with them both easy and pleasurable
Two of his favorite young people were the son and daughter of his good friends, the Godebskis. For them, Mimi and Jean, Ravel in 1908 wrote a five-piece suite for piano four-hands, and gave it the title Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose). The work was introduced in 1910, played by two young students at the inaugural concert of a newly founded music society. The following year Ravel was asked to orchestrate the pieces for a ballet; he did, adding several sections to flesh out the brief suite. Although L’enfant was not even a gleam in Ravel’s eye when he composed Mother Goose, the original five pieces, so subtle, intimate, and wholly endearing in their wide-eyed fairy-tale simplicity, can be seen as something of a warm-up for the opera to come.
The inception of the opera did not involve Ravel at all. In 1914 Jacques Rouché, head of the Paris Opéra, approached the celebrated novelist Colette with the idea of writing a scenario for a ballet. Having branched out from novels to writing tales about animals, she accepted and quickly submitted an outline to Rouché. The question of who would write the music took little time in being settled: Ravel was the composer of choice. But the road to a completed work was a long one. Ravel saw in the scenario an opera rather than a ballet; Colette was easily persuaded and turned out a complete libretto. But the war intervened (Ravel saw service in the French army as an ambulance driver) and it wasn’t until 1918 that the libretto came into the composer’s possession. Although obviously pleased with it, he put off taking pen in hand and it remained for Raoul Gunsbourg of the Monte Carlo Opera to put him on a contractual deadline. It was, then, 10 years after the pairing of Colette and Ravel had occurred that the score of L’enfant became a reality.
The first performance took place in Monte Carlo on March 21, 1925. Speaking about the very successful premiere, Ravel had praise for all the participants. “Our work,” he said, “required an extraordinary production: the roles are numerous, and the phantasmagoria is constant. Following the principles of American operetta [?!], dancing is continually and intimately intermingled with the action [...and] the Monte Carlo Opera possesses a wonderful troupe of Russian dancers, marvelously directed by a prodigious ballet master, M. [George] Balanchine [the 21-year-old choreographer in his first major assignment]. And let’s not forget an essential element, the orchestra,” Ravel added, expressing his highest admiration for the conductor, Victor de Sabata.
Although the collaboration between Colette and Ravel produced a fantastic, fairy-tale stage work that is a far cry from conventional opera, Ravel treated the music using the most serious, traditional values. “More than ever,” the composer explained in speaking of his approach in the work, “I am for melody. Yes, melody, bel canto, vocalises, vocal virtuosity – this is for me a point of departure. If, in L’heure espagnole [his one-act opera of 1907] the theatrical action itself demanded that the music be only the commentary on each word and gesture, here, on the contrary, this lyric fantasy calls for melody, nothing but melody.... The score of L’enfant et les sortilèges is a very smooth blending of all styles from all epochs, from Bach up to…Ravel[!]”
Ravel also said, “The fantasy of the poem would have served no purpose had it not been sustained, indeed accentuated by the fantasy of the music.” In these Los Angeles Philharmonic concert performances, the fantasy of the music will be perfectly apparent; the fantasy of the poem requires description.
The scene is a low-ceilinged room in a country house in Normandy, with upholstered armchairs, a grandfather clock, wallpaper with little pastoral figures, a squirrel’s cage, a fireplace with a smoldering fire. The first music heard has a kind of ancient pastoral quality: two oboes, playing in fifths and fourths and soon joined by a strange-sounding bass fiddle, meander aimlessly in constantly changing meters. The inhabitant of the room, a small child, complains of having to do his lesson. Instead, he wants to do mischief – pull the cat’s tail, cut off the squirrel’s tail. I want to put mother in the corner, he sings. No sooner has he voiced this devilish desire than clarinets, on a descending fourth, announce the arrival of his mother. Asked how his lessons are coming, the child sticks his tongue out at her. His punishment for this is to have dry bread and no sugar in his tea.
As soon as his mother has left, there is an agitated burst from the orchestra, which announces the beginning of the child’s mischief. I’m very naughty, he shouts, and then goes on to demonstrate gleefully by smashing the teapot and cup, tearing pages out of his books, poking the caged squirrel with his pen, pulling the cat’s tail, upsetting the kettle on the fire, swinging from the pendulum of the grandfather clock, ripping the wallpaper with the poker. The orchestra accompanying his tirade bristles with agitation, abetted by the scurrying of the piano up and down the keyboard. What joy – I am naughty and free, he shouts as, exhausted, he tries to fall into the armchair. But no, he can’t rest, for now the magic spells begin.
The arms of the chair fall apart and, as the contrabassoon growls, the large armchair and a bergère (a small Louis XV chair) dance a stately sarabande. The piano, with typical Ravelian harmonic pungency, accompanies the dance, soon joined by other instruments. The armchair and bergère taunt the child – no more rest for him, they sing. Suddenly the clock begins to chime uncontrollably, dinging, and singing, with mad abandon. After the clock runs out of steam, trombone and contrabassoon introduce one of the cleverest of episodes. The Wedgwood teapot and Chinese cup begin a conversation in Pidgin English. They proceed to dance a wonderfully riotous foxtrot, continuing their satiric conversation.
The child is very upset, but events are about to worsen. Fire bounds out of the chimney and berates the boy for his behavior. Ravel’s fire music is a brilliant and gorgeous coloratura aria, during which Fire threatens to burn naughty children. “I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” the child cries. The shepherds and shepherdesses from the torn wallpaper begin an archaic pastorale as the side drum beats an ostinato rhythm.
When these visions have departed, the child is awestruck. “Ah, ’tis she, ’tis she.” “She” is the beloved figure of the fairy-tale princess from the storybook he has destroyed. With only a flute in attendance, the Princess reminds the child of his love for her. When the Princess disappears, the child is forlorn and voices his sadness. After his plaintive lament – “You’ve only left me a moonbeam” – there is a madcap section in which old man Arithmetic taunts the child with frenzied addition and multiplication – numbers, numbers, with no rhyme or reason to them. “Oh, my head,” the child moans. He sees the Black Cat who is joined by the White Cat for the remarkable, quite outrageous, but captivating cat duet – a rare song of operatic love. (The audience at the Opéra Comique premiere in Paris was reportedly scandalized by this X-rated aria.)
In the garden, the child is surrounded by all manner of nature sounds – insects, frogs, toads, owls, nightingales, all limned through the magic of Ravel’s orchestral wizardry. The child leans against a tree, which groans because of a wound inflicted earlier by the naughty little human. Other trees join the pained chorus. Soon a dragonfly, searching for the mate that the child has killed, sings a slow waltz, so affecting in its mournfulness. Ravel called it a valse américaine, but one is put in mind of the composer’s La valse and his Valses nobles et sentimentales.
The child watches as “the garden, palpitating with wings, glowing red with squirrels, is a paradise of
tenderness and joy.” Moved by the sight, the child says, “They love each other. They’re happy. They’ve forgotten me. I’m alone.” Innocently he cries out, “Maman.”
Hearing his cry, the animals attack the child who has been so mean to so many. In their frenzy to punish him they engage in an orgy of fighting and injure, not him but each other. After an injured squirrel falls next to the child, the animals cease their fighting and watch, spellbound, as the child binds up the squirrel’s wound. They see then that the child too is bleeding, but they don’t know what to do. “He’s in pain, he’s wounded,” they say, as bassoons and pizzicato violas describe their agitation in a striking passage. The animals recall that he had cried out “Maman,” and they now call the word softly. They escort the child back toward the house, where Maman will find him.
The chorus that follows is surely one of the most luminous of Ravelian wonders. The animals sing, “He is good, the child, he is wise…,” and the music, heart-stopping in its simple, unpretentious beauty, rises in splendor. The oboes join with the notes that opened the opera, and the child calls out the single word, “Maman.”
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.