SYNOPSIS The music—two oboes lazying along with another instrument that you would never guess to be a string bass if you weren’t looking—suggests the peace that should be reigning at the house in the Normandy countryside where the action is set. But the child in the house, a boy of six or seven, is having a bad day. He doesn’t want to do his homework, he has messed up the page in his exercise book and spilled ink on the carpet, and when Maman looks in on him, he sticks out his tongue at her. She decrees that he must spend the afternoon alone, with only dry bread and tea without sugar for lunch. To this she adds a dose of guilt: “Above all, think how sad you’ve made Maman.”
Left alone, the boy is defiant and, with his mood vaulting from fairly harmless, if unpleasant, sullen indolence to uncontrolled rage, he goes on a frightening rampage in which he sets out to trash his room, sweeping teapot and cup off the table, poking a squirrel he keeps in a cage, pulling the cat’s tail, swinging from the pendulum of the grandfather clock, tearing pages out of his schoolbook, ripping the wallpaper with the poker, and finally sinking exhausted into the armchair. And now the sortilèges, the manifestations of magic and sorcery, begin.
First, the armchair moves out from under him, the contrabassoon indicating his creaky gait, and dances a stately sarabande (a slow dance) with a Louis XV bergère (an enclosed, upholstered French armchair); other pieces of furniture join in, hoping they are now rid of the boy with his rough heels. The clock, deranged and chiming out of control from the damage done by the swing on the pendulum, interrupts these rather grand proceedings and advances on the boy, dinging madly as it goes and deeply embarrassed by its untoward—and un-French—behavior.
When the clock has subsided in shame, a trombone emits a slightly improper smear, and a black Wedgwood teapot and a Chinese cup begin a conversation—in English (sort of)! They dance an enchanting foxtrot. The Wedgwood pot assumes the persona of a prizefighter—“I punch, I knock out, you stupid chose”—to which the cup responds with a seductive song in pseudo-Chinese. (It is in the teapot’s mock-aggressive swagger that the cheese-grater has its moment of glory.) One of the cup’s words is “Mah-jong,” that game then being at the height of its vogue, and for a moment she also strays into faux-Japanese, giddily crooning the name of the wildly popular movie actor Sessue Hayakawa.
This episode particularly delighted Ravel, and he considered having the cup and the black Wedgwood pot sing a rag. Led by a trombone, who is to play espressivo, with plenty of slides and vibrato, the orchestra takes over for a while; then the singers return to finish this scene. Ravel is uncannily shrewd about pacing, with a sure sense of how to alternate different textures, colors, and tempi.
The boy is overwhelmed by what he is witnessing, but the sortilèges are just beginning to get serious. Fire comes on the scene, its voice a high coloratura (elaborate and ornate) soprano, surrounded by a rippling piano, trilling strings, and sizzling, hissing percussion (including the wind machine). Fire is a threatening presence and, confronting the boy with a multitude of his misdeeds, it makes no bones about it either. It is succeeded by Ash, “grey, sinuous, silent.” They dance together until Fire disappears in the long grey arms and veils of Ash. “J’ai peur, j’ai peur!” the boy sings, “I’m scared, I’m scared!”
Again, there is a drastic change of scene—and indeed Ravel had declared it as his intention to make the components of this opera as stylistically diverse as possible, even incongruously so. Here comes exquisitely “antiqued” pastoral music, a 1920s version of a Baroque tambourin (a French dance from the Provencal region; it’s not very melodic, tambour means drum) for the shepherds and shepherdesses on the torn wallpaper.
We now get another glimpse of the boy’s vulnerability, but this time the cause is not fear, it is love, his love for the beautiful fairy-tale princess in one of his storybooks. But the book is torn. How will the story end? Will the dark forces of night recapture her? In vain, he reaches out to try to save her. The boy’s sight of the Princess is a moment of happiness, achieved with softly sustained chords that support the magic swirl of the harp. The Princess’s song begins as a wondrous duet for soprano and flute, nothing else. Only later do other instruments enter, with woodwinds imitating the harp arpeggios. The boy’s lonely song, when the floor has opened beneath the Princess’s feet and she has vanished, sung pianissimo (very very softly) in half-voice, accompanied by just three violins and a few woodwinds, is something to stop the heart.
An orchestral shriek interrupts the dream and a little old man enters, spouting nightmare exercises in arithmetic. The boy, who has been drawn into a mad round dance by the arithmetical demons, falls to the ground, worn out. Night has fallen and the moon has risen. The boy’s black cat enters, huge and terrible, but is quickly distracted by a white cat in the garden, and the two animals sing. The boy has followed the cats into the garden, and Ravel now sets the scene with “the music of insects, frogs, and toads, the laughter of screech-owls, a murmur of breeze and nightingales.” For a moment the boy believes he has found peace, but the accusations continue, begun by the trees, who lament the wounds he has inflicted with his knife. His fear begins to give way to pity as he leans his cheek against the rough bark.
Not many listeners make it dry-eyed through what happens next, the lament of a dragonfly for the mate she cannot find, for the boy has caught and killed him. The music is a languorous slow waltz, music full of yearning. Frogs, bats, a nightingale, oleander hawk moths, a squirrel add their voices.
The two cats reappear, and the “whole garden, palpitating with wings, glowing red with squirrels, is a paradise of tenderness and animal joy.” The boy, watching, is amazed and moved: “They love each other. They’re happy. They’ve forgotten me.” Involuntarily he cries out, “Maman!” At that cry, the animals wake from their reverie, waking up again to the understanding of who the dread human is among them, and savagely they fall upon him. He is thrown into a corner; at the same moment, a baby squirrel is hurt in the mêlée and bleeding. As the animals watch, amazed and awed, the boy binds up the baby squirrel’s wound with his handkerchief, and it is then that they see that the boy, too, is hurt, afraid, in distress—above all, alone. They recall the word he had uttered a little while ago. A light appears in a window of the house. The animals intone a hymn to the good that they see is also part of the boy. Here is another of Ravel’s musical miracles, music pure, unsentimental, and full of love. The two oboes from the opening moments of the opera reappear to add their blessing to the chorus. And what happens in the last measure. . . wait and see for yourself.—Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
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