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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.
Maurice Ravel

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris
 
COMPOSITION/PREMIERE: The ballet Ma Mère lOye (Mother Goose) began its life as a suite of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands,” composed between 1908 and 1910 (they were completed in April of that year), and premiered by the child pianists Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony, at the first concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante, at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, on April 20, 1910. In 1911, Ravel made an orchestral transcription of that five-movement suite, and the same year he expanded that suite into a ballet, which was premiered at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris, under the direction of Gabriel Grovlez, on January 21 (or perhaps January 28), 1912.  

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1977 (the complete Mother Goose ballet score), Philippe Entremont conducted. MOST RECENT—March 2016. Charles Dutoit conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, two bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, bell tree, celesta, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 28 mins
 
THE BACKSTORY The ballet Ma Mère lOye (Mother Goose) began its life as a suite of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands,” composed between 1908 and 1910 (they were completed in April of that year), and premiered by the child pianists Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony, The direct inspirations were children’s stories from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French collections, especially Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère lOye (Mother Goose Tales, published in 1697). Though an evocative score, it is curious indeed as piano music, simplified to be within reach of small hands and elementary technique.
 
Ravel’s publisher Jacques Durand and the impresario Jacques Rouché saw bigger possibilities in these little pieces. Durand persuaded the composer to orchestrate the set—yielding the often-heard Suite—and Rouché went a step further and convinced him to turn it into a ballet-divertissement, which Rouché himself would direct. (He would also receive the dedication of the new version.) For this staged production, Ravel penned a scenario, placed his movements in a new order, and composed new sections—the Prelude and Dance of the Spinning Wheel—and several short connective interludes.
 
THE MUSIC Here is Ravel’s scenario, with our commentary in brackets.
 
Prelude—[Flutes and bassoon, then muted strings, play pianissimo, muted horns offer distant fanfares, flutes and oboes suggest bird-calls, clarinets ripple, the harp lets go with a magical glissando, the contrabassoon emits a brief rumble. The opening three minutes of Ravel’s ballet provide a foretaste of the flavors that will be explored at greater length in the ensuing movements.]
 
Scene 1.  Dance of the Spinning Wheel—“An enchanted garden. An old woman is seated at her spinning wheel. Princess Florine enters, jumping rope. She stumbles, falling against the spinning wheel, and is pricked by its spindle. The old woman calls for help. The young ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting rush in. They try in vain to revive the Princess. Then they recall the curse of the fairies. Two ladies-in-waiting prepare the Princess for her long sleep.”
 
Scene 2.  Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty—“Florine falls asleep. The old woman now stands erect, throws off her filthy cape and appears in the sumptuous clothing and charming features of the Good Fairy.
 
“Two little servants appear. The fairy entrusts them with guarding Florine and granting her pleasant dreams.” [Only twenty measures long and entirely consonant, this movement has an evocative power predicated on the perfection of its simplicity.]
 
Scene 3.  Conversations of Beauty and the Beast—“Beauty enters. Taking her mirror, she powders herself. The Beast enters. Beauty notices him and remains petrified. With horror, she rejects the declarations of the Beast, who falls at her feet, sobbing. Reassured, Beauty makes fun of him coquettishly. The Beast falls down faint with despair. Touched by his great love, Beauty raises him up again and accords him her hand.
 
“But before her is a prince more handsome than Eros, who thanks her for having ended his enchantment.” [As in the Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, Ravel’s pared-down simplicity here yields an effect similar to that achieved in Erik Satie’s famous Trois Gymnopédies of 1888, so much so that the composer and critic Roland-Manuel quipped that Ravel had written a fourth Gymnopédie. For anyone who has ever wanted to get up close and personal with a contrabassoon, this is your chance. Following the slow waltz of the Beauty’s opening music, the Beast makes its entrance with a basso-profundo announcement from that deepest member of the wind section. A less refined composer might have made the characterization blustery and comical; Ravel renders it poignant by marking the solo piano.]
 
Scene 4.  Tom Thumb—“A forest, at nightfall. The woodcutter’s seven children enter. Tom Thumb crumbles a piece of bread. He looks about but cannot find any houses. The children cry. Tom Thumb reassures them by showing them the bread which he has strewn along their path.
 
“They lie down and fall asleep. Birds pass and eat all of the bread. Upon awakening, the children no longer find any crumbs, and they depart sadly.” [The children wander (très modéré) to a gentle melody as they err off course. The birds appear in the guise of three solo violins, a piccolo, and flute.]
 
Scene 5.  Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas—“A tent draped in Chinese style. Male and female pagoda attendants enter. Dance. Laideronnette appears in the Chinese style of Boucher. A green serpent crawls amorously at her side.
 
“Pas de deux, then general dance.” [A passage in the score for the piano version is drawn from the 1697 collection Serpentin Vert: “They undressed and entered the bath. No sooner had she done that than pagodas both male and female began singing and playing instruments—some had lutes made of nut-shells, others had viols made of almond husks, for they needed to play instruments rightly proportioned for their various sizes.” Note the telling use of a pentatonic scale, jangling rhythms, and bell-like timbres to capture the exotic Romanticism suggested by this scene.]
 
Scene 6.  The Enchanted Garden—“Dawn. Birds are singing. Prince Charming enters, led by a cupid. He notices the sleeping Princess. She awakens at the same time that day is breaking.
 
“All of the performers in the ballet group themselves around the Prince and the Princess, who are united by Cupid.
 
“The Good Fairy appears and blesses the couple.
 
“Apotheosis” [Ravel’s interlude moves from the opening pianissimo of the horn fanfare into a stratospheric solo for the concertmaster, and then into the solemnity of the string choir (Lent et grave) as it enters the Enchanted Garden proper. At the end, the garden bursts into vivid bloom, and the apotheosis is accomplished in a brilliant blaze of orchestral color, replete with a little fanfare from the winds and vibrant glissandos from the celesta and harp.]
 
Ravel’s music is often described as exquisite, and the orchestral version of Mother Goose is certainly that, which is to say that it is fastidiously attuned to the subtlest delicacies. There is not a page that fails to yield some arcane but effective detail of orchestration, and many fleeting combinations of sounds seem unique to this piece. This work also utters a distinct melodic language among Ravel’s works, not surprisingly so, given the unusual requirements of its genesis. But in solving the challenges he set for himself, Ravel also imparted something completely authentic and characteristic. Roland-Manuel picked up on this: “. . . the Ravel of Mother Goose reveals to us the secret of his profound nature, and shows us the soul of a child who has never left the kingdom of Fairyland, who makes no distinction between nature and artifice, and who seems to believe that everything can be imagined and carried out on the material plane provided everything is strictly controlled and regulated on the mental or spiritual plane.”—James M. Keller
 
A different version of this note appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission.
 
“The Ravel of Mother Goose  reveals to us the soul of a child who has never left the kingdom of Fairyland.”