Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortilèges


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

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris, France

COMPOSED 1924 to 1925

WORLD PREMIERE: March 21, 1925, at the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo, Monaco, with Victor de Sabata conducting, with Marie-Thérèse Gauley in the central role, and with ballet sequences choreographed by the young George Balanchine

US PREMIERE: September 19, 1930. Gaetano Merola conducted San Francisco Opera and Queena Mario as the Child, under the title A Naughty Boy’s Dream. At that point in time, the San Francisco Opera orchestra shared players with the San Francisco Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1974. Seiji Ozawa led, with soloists Evelyn Petros, Gwendolyn Killebrew, Nina Hinson, Michael Best, Brent Ellis, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and the SFS Chorus. MOST RECENT—May 1999. Michael Tilson Thomas led, with soloists Dominique Labelle, Jane Giering-De Haan, Frederica von Stade, Stephanie Blythe, Joyce DiDonato, Richard Clement, François Le Roux, Raymond Aceto, and the SFS Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 plus a piccolo timpanum), triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, slapstick, ratchet, cheese grater (played with a triangle stick), woodblock, wind machine, crotales, slide whistle, xylophone, celesta, harp, luthéal (or prepared upright piano), and strings; for singers, a mezzo-soprano in the leading role of the Child, a mezzo-soprano/contralto as his Mother, plus singers of various voice ranges portraying anthropomorphized animals and objects, often doubling parts; also an adult mixed chorus and children’s chorus.

DURATION: About 45 mins

THE BACKSTORY The title of L’Enfant et les sortilèges is not easily rendered with poise into English. The enfant part poses no problem: it’s a child, and specifically a male child. Sortilèges is straightforward, too: it’s the plural of sortilège, which denotes sorcery, enchantment, or a magical spell. Put them together and a title that in French drips like shallot-infused butter off a glistening escargot becomes, in English, about as evocative as an overcooked meatloaf. What shall we call this irresistible bagatelle of the lyric stage? The Child and the Magic Spells, The Child and the Visions, The Child and the Enchantments, The Enchanted Child, The Bewitched Child—all have been put forward by conscientious translators, but none has captured the public’s imagination for good reason: they lack either accuracy or grace, and everything about this opera bespeaks both.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges resists translation because it is at heart so profoundly French. Its libretto reveals deep-seated subtleties of the Gallic world-view and employs a sometimes slangy vernacular that is hard to approximate in other tongues. It has been given in other languages, to be sure. Its early history included productions in Czech (in Prague in 1927, as Dítě a kouzla—Child and Spells) and in German (in Leipzig in 1927 and Vienna in 1929, both times as Das Zauberwort—The Incantation or The Magic Spell). But it remains L’Enfant et les sortilèges to almost everyone, just as it was called when it was unveiled in Monte Carlo in 1925. By that time the piece had occupied Ravel for almost seven years, though in a desultory way. The original impetus came from Jacques Rouché, the director of the Paris Opéra. During World War I—apparently in about 1916—he approached the novelist Colette ( which was how Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who was born in 1873 and died in 1954, signed her writing) about a scenario for a production he had in mind. Colette later recalled:

I still don’t know how I was able to give him the libretto for L’Enfant in under a week—I who work slowly and painfully. He liked my little poem and suggested composers whose names I welcomed as politely as I could.

“But,” said Rouché after a silence, “suppose I suggested Ravel?”

I burst out of my politeness and expressed my approval without reservation.

“We mustn’t neglect the fact,” added Rouché, “that it could take a long time, even if Ravel

             accepts. . . ”

. . . I had no idea what the creation of a work demanded of him, the slow frenzy which

possessed and kept him isolated, however much time it took. The War encompassed Ravel and silenced all mention of his name with a hermetic seal, and thus I got out of the habit of thinking about L’Enfant et les sortilèges.

It was true that World War I “encompassed” Ravel. He enlisted as a medical assistant, and in 1916 he headed to the front lines at Verdun as a driver in the Motor Transport Corps. When Rouché received Colette’s story, which she had titled Ballet pour ma fille, he sent a copy to Ravel at Verdun. The Army Post Office lost it. A substitute copy seems to have reached Ravel in 1917, about the time he was demobilized, and he set about acquainting himself with the fanciful tale of a child whose bad behavior causes the world—his toys, his pets, the furnishings in his room, even the animals outside—to turn against him and eventually make him realize that it’s better to be nice than naughty. Bit by bit, Ravel shared general ideas with his librettist, who proved amenable to pretty much anything he suggested: that ‘the cup and the teapot, in old Wedgewood—black—[should] sing a ragtime,” for example. He became particularly obsessed with the duet between two cats. His disciple Manuel Rosenthal (the conductor) reported that Ravel worried at length about whether the cats’ erotic dialogue ought to be spelled (and pronounced) “mouaô” or “mouain.” “Certainly,” he wrote, “Ravel spent a lot of time ruffling the fur of his two Siamese cats the better to notate their purrings.” The composer’s care paid off, and few would disagree that the cats’ scene is one of the opera’s most irresistible moments.

It was decided that the spirit of the work-in-progress was not quite right for the Paris Opéra, and plans were made to unveil it at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo instead. That company’s director, Raoul Gunsbourg, tallied the passing months with trepidation, and finally in the summer of 1923 he managed to get Ravel’s signature on a contract that promised delivery by the end of the following year. Rosenthal reported:

It was not until Ravel was writing L’Enfant that I fully understood the life of a creator. He finished the work in Monte Carlo, just days before the opening. When it was finally completed he said to me: “You know, at night when I was walking along the sea, wondering whether something should be in B-flat or B major, or how to choose a chord or guide a melodic line, I said to myself, ‘Oh, I am tired of this! I would like to be finished with it, just sitting in a café at last, enjoying an aperitif, looking at the sea.’ And when I was finally through and could sit in a café having my aperitif, the taste of it was bitter! I was longing for the time I had spent walking at night, thinking, should it be B-flat or B major!”

This was a perfect project for a Ravel opera. He always adored children, and being diminutive himself—five-foot-three, and weighing about 108 pounds—he was delighted to find that children viewed him to some extent as “one of them.” With other grown-ups he habitually maintained a certain reserve, which was sometimes interpreted as haughtiness; but with children he had no trouble shedding his defenses and participating enthusiastically in story-telling and all manner of play, joining his young friends on the carpet while his fellow adults looked on from their chairs. “L’Enfant,” said Rosenthal, “is undoubtedly Ravel’s masterpiece: and its music reflects the simplicity and the sadness of childhood. Ravel tells us that a child looks at the adult world in a way we know nothing about. Everything is gigantic and wondrous to him. A child thinks only and always about freedom. A child is always dreaming. That is why he is in revolt against adults. All his life Ravel remained a child. . . . Ravel had decorated [his house] himself, and in the way a child might decorate a house. When I wanted to give him something for his birthday, I always looked for a highly original toy, and he was always delighted.” One imagines that Walt Disney, using a cast of cartoon characters, could have interpreted this opera’s conflation of the childlike with the adult, or that the piece could be played to fine effect on the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. There is no question that the pages of L’Enfant et les sortilèges convey an impression of child-like innocence, aspiration, and wonder, a sense hazily remembered by all of us but in most cases buried beneath the weight of years.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(June 2019)