Mother Goose Ballet Music
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Ravel regularly attended the Sunday evening salons hosted by Cipa and Ida Godebski, a Polish couple living in Paris, and he sometimes joined the family during their summer stays at a country house. During those visits between 1908 and 1910, Ravel composed a set of pieces for piano (scored for four hands) dedicated to the young Godebski children, Mimie and Jean. He called the suite Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose), and fashioned the “five children’s pieces,” as he subtitled them, out of popular fairy tales. The title and two of the tales came from Charles Perrault, a seventeenth-century French writer and the father of fairy tale as a literary genre; his 1697 opus, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose, immortalized Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, and many other classic characters. Other tales came from Madame d’Aulnoy, a seventeenth-century rival of Perrault; one more timeless story, Beauty and the Beast, appeared in an eighteenth-century collection.
The orchestral version of Mother Goose owes its existence, indirectly, to Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky. After the sensational appearances in Paris by the Ballets Russes, the French impresario Jacques Rouché countered by renting out the Théâtre des Arts and assembling productions with leading French composers and artists. Rouché asked Ravel for a ballet; instead of a new work, Ravel orchestrated Mother Goose, adding a prelude and scene and providing connecting interludes.
Following the dreamy prelude, the Spinning-wheel Dance and Scene establishes a frame story for the ballet, with Sleeping Beauty tripping over an old woman’s spinning wheel, pricking her finger, and falling into a magical slumber. The Pavane of Sleeping Beauty is a short and mournful dance; like Ravel’s famous Pavane pour une infante défunte, orchestrated a year earlier, this Pavane retains the ceremonial quality of the Italian court dance it is named for. The next scene visits The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast: the clarinet leads a graceful waltz, representing Beauty, while the beastly interjections fall to the contrabassoon. Tom Thumb portrays the little protagonist dropping breadcrumbs to guide his way home and becoming flummoxed as the chirping birds steal his crumbs. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas uses pentatonic themes and tam-tam strikes to evoke an Asian character. The final scene, The Fairy Garden, blooms from delicate solos into a resplendent finale for full orchestral forces, celebrating Sleeping Beauty’s awakening and the rising sun.