Along with Schumann, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy, MAURICE RAVEL also displayed attitude for music intended for children or inspired by them. His ability to be a storyteller and captivate listeners with fairy-tale plots and magic atmosphere was revealed in the greatest degree in his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (“The Child and the Spells”) (1925). But even in shorter genres he managed to recreate in a remarkable way fantastic scenes through sound.
In 1908, the same year when Debussy created his Children’s Corner Suite, Ravel completed Gaspard de la Nuit (“Nocturnal Gaspard”) and wrote five piano pieces for four hands under the title Mother Goose, which he dedicated to Mimie and Jean Godebski – children of friends of his, whom he intended to be the first performers of the work. Ravel had a close and cordial relationship with them, as he often looked after them during their parents’ vacations. The composer shared that he loved to tell them stories, “not too gloomy in the evening to avoid nightmares but lugubrious in the morning to stimulate their appetite.” (as found in Arbie Orenstein, The Ravel Reader, Columbia UP, 1990, p. 100)
His pieces are a natural continuation of these relationships with children. As the Godebski children were too shy and could not bring themselves to perform the pieces, the premiere on 20 April 1910, was instead given by two young pianists from the Conservatoire. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated the suite and arranged for its premiere on 12 January 1912 in Paris. At the same time, Alexander Siloti was also in possession of the score, and according to him, it wasw precisely at his request that Ravel orchestrated the suite. This is quite possible, as Ziloti conducted the St. Petersburg premiere only two weeks after the Parisian performance. In 1913, Ravel expanded the music of the suite, with the addition of several new scenes, into a ballet based on a plot of his own and entitled The Dream of Florina.
The title of the Mother Goose suite was borrowed from Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection of French fairy-tales, based on modified folk sources. The first piece in Ravel’s suite – Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods – is the shortest one: only twenty bars. The music is marked as Pavane – slow court dance from the sixteenth century, but according to the plot, which presents the awakening of Beauty after a hundred years of sleep, and in keeping with the nature of the exquisite solos pervading the delicately orchestrated texture, the impression it creates is closer to that of a lullaby than of a dance.
The second piece – Tom Thumb, based on Charles Perrault’s tale, contains instances of tone-painting and evokes in the mind of the listener the tortuous road of the hero and his frantic search for the right direction. The third piece, Laideronnette – Empress of the Pagodas, derives from the the tale Serpentin Vert (“The Green Serpent”) by Madame Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy and conjurs up a picture, full of exotic colors, mechanized singing toys, and miniaturized dollhouse imagery, illustrated with selected percussion instruments. The fourth piece, Conversation of Beauty and the Beast, based upon the version of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, is surprisingly the culmination of the suite – it is the brightest, reflecting contrastive and individualized imagery. The music even follows the characters’ dialogues; it conveys even the act of the transformation of the Beast into a wonderful prince. The rhythm is waltz-like and contrasts occasionally have a funny effect.
The closing scene – The Fairy Garden – evokes the vein of the opening of the suite: slow pace, tranquility and quiet dynamics, which even implies the moral of the fairy genre that the good always prevails.