Concert Notes

Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite

Notes by Peter Laki

Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose has nothing to do with the famous collection of English nursery rhymes. This Mother Goose (or Ma Mère l’Oye) is French: it was Charles Perralt (1628–1703) who collected some old and new tales in a book that became known as “Mother Goose;” his collection contained, among others, the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood. Ravel was inspired by Perrault’s collection and other fairy tales when, in 1908, he decided to write a short suite for piano duet, intended as a gift for Mimi and Jean Godebski, the children of his friends Cipa and Ida Godebski. He orchestrated the suite in 1911. 

1. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (“Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty”). The pavane is a slow dance of Spanish origin to which Ravel had first turned in his early Pavane for a Dead Princess. 

2. Petit Poucet (“Tom Thumb”). Tom Thumb’s wanderings are depicted by a steady motion in eighth-notes in the strings, over which the woodwinds play a quiet “walking” melody. 

3. Laideronnette, Impératrice des pagodes (“Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”). There was a beautiful princess who was made ugly by a wicked witch. She travels to a distant country inhabited by tiny, munchkin-like people called “pagodes.” (Eventually, as one might expect, she is restored to her original beauty and finds her Prince Charming.) Ravel was clearly inspired by Chinese music here. 

4. Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (“Conversations of Beauty and the Beast”). This story is very well known, but few actually remember the name of its author, Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711–80). Ravel’s movement is in the tempo of a slow waltz. The Beauty is represented by the clarinet, the Beast by the contrabassoon. 

5. Le Jardin féerique (“The Enchanted Garden”). This movement does not seem to be based on any particular fairy tale. It is a celebration of the splendor of this miraculous garden, where the sun never goes down and everyone lives a blessed and happy life.