“It was my intention to awaken the poetry of childhood in these pieces, and this naturally led me to simplify my style and to thin out my writing.” – Ravel
When was it composed?
Between 1908 and 1910 Ravel composed the five movements as a piano duet dedicated to Mimi and Jean, the children of his friends Cipa and Ida Godebski.
When was it first performed?
It was first performed on April 20, 1910 at a Paris concert by Geneviève Durony and Jeanne Leleu, then only six and seven years old.
When was the Suite orchestrated?
In early 1911 Ravel scored the five movements for a full orchestra. Later that year he refashioned it as a ballet adding a prelude, a dance with the spindle for Sleeping Beauty and four interludes.
What instruments did he use?
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, strings
How long does it take to perform?
Depending on the tempi preferred by the conductor between 18 and 20 minutes.
A few things about Ma mère l’Oye:
- Ravel had no children of his own however he loved children and was loved by his friends’ children. Mimi and Jean were amongst his favourites and on his visits to their parents he told them the fairy stories which were to inspire the Suite.
- He dedicated Ma mère l’Oye to them and had hoped they would be the first to play it in public. However, it was not to be. Jean recalled, “To us it mainly meant just a lot of hard work.” Geneviève Durony and Jeanne Leleu were to have that honour.
- Ravel based the movements on four fairy tales: Sleeping Beauty and Hop O’My Thumb by Charles Perrault (1697), his contemporary Comtesse d’Aulnoy’s Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas and Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s moral tale Beauty and the Beast (1757).
- While studying the 1911 manuscript of the ballet version at the Ransom Center, University of Texas, Arbie Orenstein discovered the largest error in any of Ravel’s scores. A bassoon line was missing from the published edition used for the past century. The New York Philharmonic played Orenstein’s amended version on December 28, 2011 – a world premiere 100 years after the fact.
The Movements and the Tales
- Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane) – slow
Beauty has pricked her finger on the spindle and to the gentle rhythms of a courtly pavane falls asleep. It is only twenty measures of melody over plain but changing harmonies that send the Princess into dreams of other fairy tales.
- Petit Poucet (Hop-o’-My Thumb/Tom Thumb) – moderate
“He thought he would easily find his way, thanks to the bread he had scattered wherever he had passed, but he was quite surprised when he couldn’t see even a single crumb of it. Birds had come along and eaten every bit.”
A solo oboe traces little Tom’s meandering path as he searches for the crumbs that should guide him home. In the background the well-fed birds chirp contentedly unaware of his plight.
- Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas) – march tempo
Cometesse d’Aulnoy’s tale of a young girl whose beauty has been stolen by an evil fairy is not well-known in English. In the style of Chinoiseries of the period it involves a Green Serpent with magical powers, and an Oriental garden where statues comes to life and serenade their Empress as she bathes in the shade of willow trees. Ravel serenades her with bell-like percussive instruments – cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, and the drumming of the tam-tam. All sounds he recalled from the 1889 Paris Exhibition of his childhood.
- Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête (The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) – waltz
“When I think of your good heart you do not seem ugly to me.”
“Oh, beautiful lady, my heart is good but still I am a monster.”
“Many a man is more monstrous than you, dear Beast.”
“If I had wit, I should pay you a great compliment, but alas I am only that, a beast!”
“Beauty, will you be my wife?”
Ravel follows the conversations of Beauty and her Beast as she comes to realize that behind the monstrous façade is a loving heart. He divides the duologue between the gentle sound of the clarinet (Beauty) and the deep growl of the contrabassoon (Beast).
“I die happy for I have had the joy of seeing you again.”
“No, my beloved Beast, you will not die: You will live to become my husband!”
The Beast had disappeared, and at her feet she saw a prince more beautiful than the god of love himself.
As Beauty declares her love for the Beast a crash of cymbals ends the evil spell and to a sweeping harp glissando Beauty and her Beast are transformed into a solo violin and a solo cello.
- Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden) – slow and solemn
The story behind this movement is unknown however in the ballet version it is the account of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening by her Prince. The music is warm with perhaps a touch of melancholy as Beauty’s dreams come to an end. But any sadness is left behind as the trumpets sound a fanfare and the percussion section joins the celebration.
Are there recordings or videos of Ma mère d’Oye available?
Performances of the suite by major artists and orchestras are available in all its forms on CD, streaming sites and video.
Here are links to three performances:
Piano duet – 1910: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r58eQnqjzxY
Full Orchestra – 1911: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U7osEigQZM
Ballet – 1912: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7w7RqLSDeFw