Composed: 1908; 1911
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1927, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
About this Piece
The phenomenal success of Ravel’s “greatest hits” (especially the almost notorious Bolero) may blind us to the subtleties of his most enchanting works. There are in fact several “versions” of his Mother Goose, and some clarification may be called for. The music began life in 1908 with the creation of a single movement for piano duet, Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane. (Ravel’s famous Pavane for a Dead Princess had been written nine years earlier, in 1899.) Four more duets were composed in 1910, and the Suite (now named Mother Goose and given a fascinating subtitle which translates literally as “Five Infantile [or Childish] Pieces”) was premiered in Paris almost immediately thereafter. It was only after a request for a ballet score that the composer orchestrated the originals and expanded the work, adding a prelude, several connecting sections, and one entirely new episode, as well as revising the sequence of the five original scenes. Tonight’s performance presents the music in the composer’s original, pre-ballet sequence.
As with most of Ravel’s orchestrations of his piano scores, there is no trace of the original sound world. The refinement of the textures Ravel utilizes to recreate this music in orchestral terms is an endless source of wonderment. After the moody opening “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant,” we are transported to the forest (“Petit Poucet”) where Tom Thumb’s trail of crumbs is the victim of various songbirds. A colorful and exotic depiction of things Chinese follows, as “Laideronnette, Impératrice des pagodes” bathes while being entertained with musical walnut-shells and almond-shells. Then comes “Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête,” which British writer Gerald Larner described as “Ravel’s first-ever love scene.” This is no Disneyfied Beauty and the Beast, though, and the transformation of the Beast leads to a hymn-like but eventually ecstatic celebration of nature in “The Enchanted Garden.” The radiant orchestration is quintessential Ravel. —Dennis Bade