Mother Goose Suite (Ma Mère l'Oye)

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            On the one hand, Ravel’s considerable talent and intellect could be satirical and probing—and somewhat ambiguous--as  in La valse.  On the other, his Mother Goose Suite will reveal yet another aspect of his penchant for reinterpretation of time-honored musical traditions.  Ravel took pleasure in the companionship of animals and children, and enjoyed reading fairy tales to Mimi and Jean Godebski, children of his close friends.  In 1910 he composed a piano duet for the young children based upon a few of these stories and orchestrated the suite the next year. The various movements of Mother Goose Suite are based upon versions of traditional tales as told by three well-known French authors.  Ravel is likely the most adroit of those who orchestrate, or adapt for orchestra, music originally written for piano or other instruments.  His version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is certainly the best known, and he was wont to orchestrate his own keyboard works, as well.  What is most intriguing about this suite is the way in which very simple textures for young pianists assume a marvelously profound quality under the expert pen of Ravel the orchestrator—no obvious vestige of the original medium is palpable. While conceived in a refined, accessible, and modest style, the various movements exhibit Ravel’s sophisticated use of “exotic” musical materials, including pentatonic scales (the black keys on the piano) and quartal harmonies (chords made of stacked fourths—not the usual thirds).

            His mastery of orchestral sound is aptly illustrated by the flute and harp of Sleeping Beauty; the plaintive English horn of Tom Thumb after the birds (woodwinds) have eaten his trail of crumbs; and the exotic (and perhaps clichéd by now) music of the little Chinese empress and her orchestra of tiny dolls.  In the Beauty and the Beast (clarinet and bassoon, respectively), the transformation of the Beast into the Prince is easy to spot in the solo violin and harp passage.  The Fairy Garden begins simply, perhaps as an extension of the mood of the previous, happy moments, and grows into a luminous celebration of its subject.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan