Length: c. 15 minutes
About this Piece
Orchestration: piano, four-hands
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1927, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Whether to the never-never lands of the East (Shéhérazade), the cool beauty of classical Greece (Daphnis et Chloé) or the innocent world of childhood as expressed in the Contes de ma mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose Tales”) of the 18th-century fairy tale collector/writer Charles Perrault and his contemporaries, Ravel was the ultimate musical escapist.
The children – unlike the lands of his imaginings – could, however, be real, and he was always comfortable with them, and they adored him. This side of his nature is shown in the set of piano duets, Ma mère l’Oye, he wrote in 1908 for young Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents, Ida and Cyprian (“Cipa”) Godebski, were among the few close friends the composer ever had.
Mimi would later write: “Ravel used to tell me marvelous stories. I would sit on his knee and he would begin, ‘once upon a time...’ And it was Laideronette, Beauty and the Beast, and the adventures of a poor mouse that he had made up for me. It was [at the Godebskis’ country home] that Ravel fin- ished and presented us with Ma mère l’Oye. But neither my brother nor I were of an age to appreciate such a dedication and we re- garded it rather as something that involved hard work.”
Thus, the piano duets were not per- formed until April of 1910, and then by two other children of the composer’s acquain- tance, Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony. (In 1912, Ravel orchestrated the duets for a ballet, changing their order, and adding numbers and transitions, from which he also derived an orchestral concert suite.)
I. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of Sleeping Beauty). That the prin- cess has been asleep for a hundred years is indicated by Ravel’s evocation of the long-ago through the use of an old Church mode (Aeolian) and distantly chiming effects.
II. Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb) is headed by a quotation from Perrault’s story: “He believed he would have no difficulty finding his way by means of the bread crumbs he had strewn everywhere he had passed; but he was greatly surprised when he could not find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten them all.”
III. Laideronette, Impératrice des Pagodes (The Ugly Little Girl, Empress of the Pagodas) derives its oriental flavor from the use of the pentatonic scale (in this case, the piano’s black keys). The story, by Perrault’s 18th-cen- tury contemporary, the Countess d’Aulnoy, deals with the little girl made ugly by an evil witch. Walking in the woods one day she encounters a green serpent who had once been a handsome prince. Together they make a sea voyage and are washed ashore in a country inhabited by a people called the Pagodas, tiny beings whose bodies are made of jewels and porcelain. The Ugly Little Girl and the Green Serpent are eventually restored to their original – beautiful – forms and, of course, marry.
IV. Les entretiens de la Belle et de la bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast). Ravel depicts in the form of a languorous waltz the conversation in which Beauty tells the Beast that his kindheartedness makes him no longer ugly. He asks her to be his wife. At first she refuses, but then takes pity on him and accepts, whereupon he is trans- formed into his original form of a prince, “beautiful as the god of love.”
V. Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden), the enchanted finale, in which Sleeping Beauty is awakened by Prince Charming, ends the score in a gorgeously sonorous wash. — Herbert Glass