Maurice Ravel’s musical settings of Mother Goose fairy tales were inspired by his friendship with Mimi and Jean Godebski, the young children of his close friends Cipa and Ida Godebski. Although he did not have a family of his own, Ravel loved children; he responded to their directness and ability to express awe and wonder. Additionally, Ravel was quite short in stature, closer to children in height than to the average-sized adult. Ravel’s child-like persona also revealed itself in his famous collection of mechanical toys, which he delighted in showing to friends old and young.
Thirty years after Ravel gave the Godebski children Ma Mère l’Oye, Mimi Godebski wrote:
“Ravel was my favorite [of her father’s friends] 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 Laideronette, 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 Godebskis’ 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 idea of evoking in these pieces the poetry of childhood naturally led me to simplify my style (manière) and to refine my means of expression (écriture),” wrote Ravel. The mastery with which he combined a deliberately simple compositional style with genuine childlike but never patronizing expression makes Ma Mère l’Oye a remarkable achievement. Any competent composer can write a work that appeals to a knowledgeable grownup audience. It takes a person with uncommon sensitivity to write a piece that speaks to both children and adults with equal impact."
Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty captures the moment in which the young prince discovers the Sleeping Beauty deep in her 100-year enchanted sleep. Ravel illustrates this intimate scene with a slow rhythm, repeating melody, and delicate, sparse texture.
Petit Poucet traces Little Thumb’s journey through the woods, scattering breadcrumbs as he goes so that he may find his way back home again. Much to his dismay, he discovers the birds have eaten all his crumbs, leaving him stranded in the forest. The constantly varying time signatures (measures have two, three, or even five beats, each measure using a different number) represent Little Thumb’s hesitant steps through the dark wood, carrying him farther from home and safety.
For Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas, Ravel employs the five-note (pentatonic) scale commonly heard in East Asian music.
Conversations Between Beauty and the Beast, the most well-known story in this group, depicts the moment the Beast, as he is dying, asks Beauty to marry him; she agrees, despite being repelled by his ugliness. The Beast disappears, and in his place enters a handsome Prince, whereupon Beauty realizes the Beast’s enchantment has been lifted. This music effectively portrays the delicacy of Beauty and the weighty, awkward ugliness of the Beast, who is finally revealed as his true self.
The Fairy Garden returns us to the story of Sleeping Beauty, now awakened by the prince’s kiss. Ravel links the first and last pieces through his use of the same slow, even tempo and similar tonalities. We can hear the prince tiptoeing in upon Sleeping Beauty, kissing her awake, and watching as she arises from her long sleep. Toward the end of the piece we also hear time resume its normal course for Sleeping Beauty; the bass notes toll a repeated clock chime while she and her prince rejoice together.
© Elizabeth Schwartz.