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Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)


Mother Goose Suite
Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene
Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty
Conversation of Beauty and the Beast
Tom Thumb
Empress of the Pagodas
The Fairy Garden

The origins of the Mother Goose tales are lost in the mists of prehistory. They first came to general notice in the anthology published in 1697 by Charles Perrault Stories and Tales of Olden times, with Morals. This includes the stories of The Sleeping Beauty and Hop o' my Thumb, as well as Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The story of Beauty and the Beast appeared rather later, in a collection of 1757, but the final story - The Ugly Little Girl, Empress of the Pagodas - is contemporary with the Perrault anthology.

Like many of Ravel's orchestral works, his Mother Goose was originally written for piano. It was written in 1908 as a set of five piano duets for Mimie and Jean, the talented children of a friend. The first public performance of the piano duet version was given in Paris in 1910 by two girls, Jeanne Leleu and Genevieve Durony, both aged ten! The following year Ravel transformed the pieces into a ballet, adding a prelude, a new opening scene, and interludes to connect the separate numbers. The complete ballet was first performed in Paris on 28th January, 1912.

Mother Goose is in Ravel's most magical style, offering both great charm and deep emotion. Ravel wrote that "the idea of evoking in these pieces the poetry of childhood naturally led me to simplify my style and to refine my means of expression", and it is the matching of the constrained style and expression that makes this work such a masterpiece. The orchestra used is not large - indeed the brass section is represented by only two horns. The sections of the ballet follow each other without obvious breaks.

The prelude opens with muted fanfares, suggesting enchanted things to come. The first two sections depict the Sleeping Beauty. The conversations of Beauty and the Beast are depicted by a graceful waltz, in which the Beast is easily recognised by the deep notes of the Contrabassoon. Tom Thumb left a trail of breadcrumbs to guide him on his return from the woods, but the birds ate the crumbs and now he is lost. The wandering accompaniment depicts his journey, and the calls of the birds are clearly audible. The Ugly little girl, Empress of the Pagodas is in a Javanese Gamelan style, naively oriental. The Fairy Garden depicts the awakening of the Sleeping Beauty by Prince Charming, in a hymn of great beauty, which works up to a joyous fanfare of celebration.

Pavane pour une Infante defunte

Ravel was always slightly irritated by the success of his early piano piece, Pavane pour une Infante defunte, because he later came to consider it formally poor, and derived from Chabrier's piano style. The musical public has not agreed with him! He wrote it for piano in 1899; it was one of his earliest works, and his first significant success. He orchestrated it in 1910 for a small orchestra of woodwind, strings, horns and harp, in which form it has become even more widely known.

When asked the identity of the deceased princess of the title, Ravel claimed to have chosen the title for its sound only. He dedicated it to the very much alive Princess Edmond de Polignac, a major patron of the arts in France at that time.

Piano Concerto in G major
I. Allegramente
II. Adagio assai
III. Presto

A native of the Basque country of south-west France, Ravel is usually coupled with Debussy as the main "French Impressionist" composers. He is best known for his piano music such as the Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, and his ballet scores such as Daphnis and Chloe. He wrote relatively few works for orchestra, of which Bolero is by far his most popular. Although Ravel was only 13 years younger than Debussy, that difference was crucial at a time when music was changing rapidly, and in some ways Ravel's music is more obviously 20th century than Debussy's, incorporating influences such as jazz. Late in his life Ravel's style became more clean and simple, perhaps influenced by the work of Stravinsky.

Despite writing a great deal of music for solo piano. Ravel wrote only two piano concertos. They were his last major compositions, and he worked on them simultaneously in 1930 and 1931. One was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the famous philosopher) who had lost his right arm in the first World War, and so is for left hand alone. The other, this concerto in G, was for Ravel himself to play. Both concertos were premiered in January 1932.

Compared with the concerto for left hand, which is a dark, brooding piece, richly scored for large orchestra in one movement, the concerto in G seems simple and normal. It is in three movements, is scored for a small-ish orchestra, and is much more transparent in its sound. While the outer movements show the influence of jazz (and Gershwin in particular), the central adagio has a simplicity and purity that cost Ravel much effort to achieve.

The first movement opens briskly with a tune on the piccolo, while a slower section which follows sounds influenced by Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. After another fast section with a brief piano cadenza (blink and you'll miss it) a second slow section is very delicate, with unusual sounds for the harp. The momentum is soon regained and the close is energetic.
The slow movement begins with a long tune for the solo piano, deceptively simple and child-like, which seemingly cannot decide if it is in two beats or three. There are two rather abrupt key changes which coincide with increasingly rapid notes in the piano, and the opening theme later appears on the cor anglais, sustained and lyrical. The ending is very calm.

The finale is fast and brittle, with echoes of the first movement in its use of slapstick and trumpet. It is very short!

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