Ravel’s Mother Goose

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is not unlike a thoughtfully assembled box of one’s favorite assorted chocolates: each has something unique to offer our tastebuds, and all should be savored. If one has the time, sampling each of them in one sitting is a real treat. Having been expelled from France’s prestigious Conservatoire, Ravel loosed his musical creativity on the well-known and beloved stories of Mother Goose as a gift to two piano students: Mimi and Jean Godebski. As Ravel would later remark, “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 refine them he did… 

In the first movement of this programmatic work, Ravel descends into that delicate world of calm uncertainty we find between waking and dreaming. In his musical interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, the composer’s soft harmonies perfectly capture the stillness of an evening that has almost given way to dawn. The melancholic uncertainty in this introductory piece is not overdone, but gradually sprinkled over the listener like the fabled Sandman’s sleep dust.

The dream shifts once more as we begin the second movement, accompanying the miniscule figure of Tom Thumb on a fruitless quest. The poor fellow searches high and low for his home, while the birds that devour his poorly planned navigational system (breadcrumbs) taunt him with dissonant chirping from the uppermost tonal reaches of the piano. And just as the listener begins to grow weary of hills and valleys, we arrive at the sea.

The protagonists of the dynamic third movement, whose melody is grounded in a lively pentatonic sequence, are a sea-faring girl and her green serpentine companion. After the girl’s boat is scuppered on the rocks of an island inhabited by delicate doll-like denizens, she is named ruler of the so-called “pagodes and pagodines” and weds her companion. This marriage transforms them both into beautiful human royalty, and Ravel encourages us to delight in the pitter-patter of porcelain feet as we listen to the animate dolls zip swiftly from one scene of the story to the next. The meditative entrance of the giant green serpent is a winding and purposeful journey through the island’s flora, culminating in a reunion with the newly crowned princess and offering a pinch of romantic devotion to his character. While beauty is found in dreams and the journey home in previous movements, Ravel foreshadows in this bright collection of scenes the moral of the upcoming movement: that beauty can be found within.

The fourth movement is defined by the Beauty’s waltz, an introspective dance which gives way to the brooding dissonance of the Beast as slowly the two characters (and their melodies) grow closer to one another. The tension builds until their love for one another wins out, and the Beast is revealed to be a Prince. It is here, at the final precipice of the fourth movement, that Ravel tumbles into storytelling that is entirely his own, both thematically and musically.

The fifth movement brings everything full circle with the approach of a prince in Sleeping Beauty’s realm. A magical kiss brings everything into focus, and Sleeping Beauty opens her eyes to behold her true love. The pair venture forth from the drab room in which she slumbered and enter her fairy godmother’s garden to be wed. The themes of love and dreams and homecoming are beautifully brought together in a fitting fanfare that turns the final page of the storybook and score alike.

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