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Maurice Ravel

Mother Goose Suite for piano 4-hands

May 12, 2024: Alessio Bax, piano; Lucille Chung, piano

Ravel often preferred the company of children to that of adults. In 1908 he wrote a delightful set of piano duets entitled Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) for two of his favorite children, Mimi and Jean Godebski. Their parents, Ida and Cipa Godebski, some of Ravel’s best friends, regularly entertained many of the famous artists, writers, and musicians of the period. Years later Mimi wrote:

Ravel was my favorite because he used to tell me marvelous stories. I would sit on his knee and indefatigably he would begin “Once upon a time . . .” And it was Laideronnette, Beauty and the Beast and above all the adventures of a poor mouse that he had made up for me. . . . It was at la Grangette [the Godebski’s country house at Valvins] that Ravel finished or anyway presented us with Ma mère l’oye. But neither my brother nor I was of an age to appreciate such a dedication and we saw it rather as something that involved hard work.

The piano duets were first performed on April 20, 1910, in Paris on the first concert of the Société Indépendente, founded as a rival to the Société Nationale. The work was played, not by the Godebskis, but by two young girls—Jeanne Leleu (student of Marguerite Long, one of Ravel’s great interpreters) and Geneviève Duronys (student of Madame Chesné). Ravel was extremely pleased by the performance, as he touchingly wrote to Mlle. Leleu afterwards. She later won the Prix de Rome and became a professor at the Paris Conservatory.

Ravel wrote in his autobiographical sketch: “It was my intention to awaken the poetry of childhood in these pieces, and this naturally led me to simplify my style and to thin out my writing.” The contrast between these five pieces and Gaspard de la nuit, also written in 1908, could scarcely be greater in this respect, yet Ravel remains Ravel in the essentials—the modality of the melodies, the harmonic and rhythmic treatment, the recall of old dance styles, and the evocation of fairy worlds. Writers of the past provided the direct inspiration for Ravel’s set of little “tales”: Charles Perrault for Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb (1697 anthology); Comtesse d’Aulnoy (a Perrault contemporary) for Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; and Marie Leprince de Beaumont for Beauty and the Beast (1757 Children’s Treasury of Moral Tales). The final piece takes up the end of the Sleeping Beauty story, thus neatly enclosing the set.

As with many of his piano works, Ravel orchestrated Ma mère l’oye, in this case on a commission from Jacques Rouché, director of the Théâtre des Arts, for a January 1912 ballet performance, choreographed by Mme. Jeanne Hugard. To make a complete ballet Ravel added two numbers and several transitions, and changed the order slightly. The work is best known, however, in its five-movement concert suite version, which follows the order of the piano duets.

In the Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, Ravel depicts the 100-year sleep of the princess by employing the ancient Aeolian church mode, evoking a sense of “long ago.” Gentle chimes add to the atmosphere.

Tom Thumb is headed by a quotation from Perrault’s tale: “He thought he would be able to find the path easily by means of the bread which he had strewn wherever he had walked; but he was quite surprised when he could not find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten them all.” The music depicts his trail with muted thirds in the accompaniment joined by a melody that often moves in parallel motion, lending an ancient flavor to the wistful passages. Ravel suggests bird twitterings midway through the piece.

Ravel turned to the pentatonic (five-note) scale for Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, to suggest its Eastern atmosphere. From the Comtesse d’Aulnoy’s story of the Ugly Little Girl (Laideronnette) and the Green Serpent, who both overcome their respective spells eventually to live happily ever after, Ravel depicted the following episode: “She undressed and got into the bath. The toy mandarins and mandarinesses began to sing and play instruments; some had theorbos made of walnut shells; some had viols made of almond shells, for the instruments had to be of a size appropriate to their own.” Ravel’s portrayal pays particular attention to their diminutive size.

In Conversations of Beauty and the Beast (quotations from Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s tale head the piece), Beauty tells the Beast that he does not seem so ugly when she thinks of his kindheartedness. He asks her to marry him, and though she refuses at first, she finally accepts. He of course, turns into a prince at that moment. Musically their conversation takes place as a kind of slow waltz.

The Suite concludes with The Fairy Garden, in which Sleeping Beauty wakes up to her handsome prince. The “magic” glissandos (slides) at the end caused poor little Jeanne Leleu to hurt her finger in the piano version, she later recalled. Any hopes she had of being allowed to finger the notes individually were dashed by Ravel who said simply, “I am an assassin!” and left them as they were to create their enchanting effect.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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