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.

An Afternoon for a Faune

It can be said of beauty in the arts that the simpler something appears to a beholder, the greater were the creator’s efforts in cloaking the underlying complexity of their creation.

Subtlety, after all, requires a keen eye for detail. Such is the case with Claude Debussy’s Prelude a L’apres-midi d’une faune, a symphonic poem that some consider to be the definitive turning point in the evolution of modern music. Translated as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, its enduring fame rests squarely on the piece’s ability to ebb and flow harmonically without losing the passionate purpose and endless curiosity of its flute-playing goat-legged protagonist.

Shying away from musical literalism, the layering of the orchestration and tickling lilt of the flute’s melodies imply a delicate balance between romantic discovery and cheeky flirtatiousness. This is done primarily as a tribute to the prelude’s inspiration, a poem by Stephan Mallarme of scandalously erotic proportions (at least, for the time in which it was written).

Depicting the musing mid-day sojourn of a fawn as he awakes after mingling with his very friendly nymph and nyad neighbors, the story drifts on a current of bubbling flute solos which deliver an intoxicating feeling of otherworldly calm. Punctuated by swelling ascending passages, the final product portrays a metaphor of the human psyche: a beacon of child-like wonder, part rationality and part instinct that lives to investigate and enjoy all that the external world has to offer.

The piece’s musical impact was astronomical, with daring compositional choices being pioneered from its very first performance at Paris’s Salle Harcourt in 1894. Repeating cells of

Stephane Mallarme

music with no real direction, flute solos beginning (unfingered) on the “bad note” of C# that flautists ordinarily stampede away from, and a chordal structure functioning as something of an afterthought in comparison to the unabashedly forward role of its principal soloist. Each of these bold decisions converged into a piece of music which cranked up the heat on a musical revolution that already started to brew, a way of interpreting music through the conviction that it can be so much more than a static phenomenon defined by timeless truths and classical principles.

At a time where social distancing, mask-wearing, and household bubbling have made us all increasingly wary of environmental interaction and exploration, Debussy’s Prelude a L’apres-midi d’une faune serves as a musical reminder of the scintillating pleasures that await us in this garden of life. All we need to do is awaken from our slumber and take it all in, one hoof-step at a time.

Hear the SSO perform this work as part of our Postcards from Paris!
Postcards from Paris

 

Piaf and La Vie en Rose

Imagine falling in love in Paris: a delicate series of scenes painted in soft pastels, where romance shines through every innocent moment of discovery in that bright and historic city. Do you hear the music? It is very likely that the melodies your mind instinctively conjures are a melodic throwback to a classic staple of French songwriting: “La Vie en rose”. The lyrics to this lush piece of Parisian music were penned by French singer-songwriter, cabaret performer, and film actress Edith Piaf.

Immortalized as France’s national chanteuse, Edith Piaf’s remarkable vocal stylings gave birth to a career peppered with high points, and the immediate commercial success of La Vie en rose was certainly one of them. It was the song that made Piaf internationally famous, with its lyrics expressing the joy of finding true love and appealing to those who had survived the difficult period of World War II.

Popularized in 1946, it was released as a single in 1947 to widespread acclaim, with seven versions of the song topping the Billboard charts in the United States alone. The song was popularly covered by Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Donna Summer, and Latin singer Thalia. Even Bing Crosby hopped on the musical appreciation train bound for France when he recorded his 1953 album “Le Bing: Song Hits of Paris”.

As is the case with most secret sauces, the harmony between distinct flavors (musical or otherwise) makes all the difference. Similarly, the success of La Vie en rose is owed not only to Piaf’s sparkling lyricism, but also to the subtlety of composer Louis Guglielmi’s musical design. His orchestration deepens our immersion into the musical imagery that makes Piaf’s performance so captivating. Known by his nom de plume “Louiguy”, Guglielmi was no stranger to delightful combinations (himself being a Spanish-born French musician of Italian descent).

Having studied at the Conservatoire de Paris alongside the likes of Maurice Baquet, Henri Dutilleux, and Paul Bonneau, Guglielmi was also responsible for penning the 1950 Latin Jazz hit “Cerisier rose et pommier blanc” (a popular song which would eventually be reconfigured as a mambo smash-hit for Perez Prado). Guglielmi created nearly three dozen film scores during his life, but the musical partnership he showcases with Piaf on “La Vie en rose” is a timeless sort of beauty that sets itself apart. Like Paris itself, this renowned ballad is in a class of its own.

The SSO is living La Vie en Rose and performing it as part of our Postcards from Paris

Chevalier and the Balloons

Audiences today don’t know enough Joseph Bolonge, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and we need to change that because he was an important figure in music history who’s music is making a major comeback.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne dite Nanon, his wife’s African slave.

His father took him to France when he was young, and he was educated there, also becoming a champion fencer. During the French Revolution, the younger Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. He fought on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first known classical composer who was of African ancestry; he composed numerous string quartets and other instrumental music, and opera.

The Chevalier played a key role in the aristocratic life of Paris in late 1700s, with close ties to the Palace of Versailles. The Chevalier often found himself the guest at the private musicales salons of Marie Antoinette at Versailles…with Chevalier playing his violin sonatas, with the Queen accompanying on the forte-piano.

Etching of the September 19th air balloon flight at Versailles

In the fall of 1783, the Montgolfier brothers made a major step in human history – and it all happened in front of the court of Louis XVI at Versailles. The first ‘aerostatic’ flight in history was an experiment carried out by the Montgolfier brothers; at long last, man could leave the surface of the earth below.

On the day, crowds filled the gardens to watch the magical lift off. The balloon took off on a warm September 19th afternoon, with animals instead of humans as its first passengers – and it was a total success. Just two months later the first balloon flight with humans was also success. After that, there was no looking back. It was the first time that humans had been able to take to the skies, and proved that Da Vinci had been right…there would be a way to fly!

Hot air ballooning took off in France, and before long passenger balloon rides were filling the skies above Paris.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music was the toast of Paris and Versailles. During the 1780s, Saint-Georges’ star continued to get brighter and brighter. His output during this time was swift – operas, concertos, sonatas – but he also shaped the music that Paris was hearing. We have Saint-Georges’ to thank for the commissioning of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, which the Chevalier conducted upon their premieres.

Paris was a place filled with innovation, fascination, ambition, and pre-revolution tensions. Historians know that the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was at the Versailles court in September of 1873, but it remains unknown if he was there on the day that the Montgolfier brothers made everyone dream about flying!