Composed: 1908; 1911
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1927, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The case of Ma mère l’oye is unique in the annals of 20th-century ballet, the music having come into being first as a five-piece suite for four hands at one piano, written by Ravel in 1908 for the young son and daughter of his good friends, the Godebskis. The affectionate musical gift was quite in character for Ravel, who was at once the most sophisticated and child-like of men. Like many another retiring bachelor, he loved children and found social communication with them easy and pleasurable; his musical communication he made in wondrously fresh and artless terms. With the title Mother Goose (only two sections, however, derive from Charles Perrault’s writings), the piece was introduced in 1910. The following year, Ravel was induced to orchestrate the music for ballet purposes, which he did, adding to the original five pieces a Prelude, a Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene, and four Interludes. It is the original five pieces in the form of an orchestral suite which are best known to concert-hall audiences; the composer contrived a free-wheeling version of the Sleeping Beauty story to serve as a libretto for the ballet.
The Prelude sets the stage for the action with languid winds and strings and little brass fanfares. Not surprisingly, the brief Interludes with which Ravel stitches together the main sections bear a family resemblance to Daphnis et Chloé since at Ma mère time, Daphnis was a work in progress.
Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene: Princess Florine is dancing in her garden as her nurse sits at the spinning wheel. (Strings spin busily as the winds dance.) Falling against the spindle, the princess pricks herself and falls into a deep sleep. She is surrounded by courtiers and ladies-in-waiting who dance the...
Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty: A fairy appears to guard the bewitched princess whose dreams are enacted in the following scenes. This episode, just a little longer than a sigh, starts with a haunting, simple modal melody sung by a flute, and moves on gossamer feet to an intimacy whispered by high violins.
Conversations Between Beauty and the Beast: Beauty is a beguiling waltz sung by clarinet, the beast a grunting contrabassoon. The magical transformation of the latter into his original princely state is heralded by a harp glissando and violin harmonics. The prince speaks then in noble cello tones.
Tom Thumb: The violins, representing Tom Thumb wandering in the forest, move stealthily (in thirds, and in ever-changing meter), as a plaintive melody, first in oboe then in English horn, weaves its frightened way. Birds chirp happily as they eat the crumbs Tom has strewn to help him find his way out of the forest. The ending is not happy — Tom seems hopelessly lost.
Little Ugly One (Laideronette), Empress of the Pagodas: The beautiful princess, Laideronette, has been made ugly by the curse of a wicked witch. With a green serpent (a handsome fellow similarly bewitched into his present form), Little Ugly One sails to the land of the Pagodas — little figures made of porcelain, crystal, and precious stones. The scene shows Ugly at her bath. Ravel evokes the Chinoiserie with the brightest pentatonic jollity, interrupts it with pseudo-seriousness, and slyly returns to the initial busyness.
The Fairy Garden: Finally, Prince Charming awakens the sleeping princess in the prescribed manner, and the Good Fairy blesses the couple in the Fairy Garden. Ravel’s leave-taking of the mystical lands is at first pensive, then glittering in a kind of orchestral effulgence in which the master orchestrator was inimitable.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.