Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Suite from Ma Mère L'oye ("Mother Goose")
(b. 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France; d. 1937, Paris)
Composed for piano in 1908; orchestrated in 1911.
Orchestral version premiered on January 28, 1912 in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Grovlez.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two horns, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 17 minutes.
"I would settle down on his lap and tirelessly he would begin, 'Once upon a time ...' It was Beauty and the Beast and The Ugly Empress of the Pagodas, and, above all, the adventures of a little mouse he invented for me. I laughed a great deal at this last story; then I felt remorseful, as I had to admit it was very sad." So Mimi Godebski reminisced in later years about the visits of Maurice Ravel to her family's home during her childhood. Ravel, a contented bachelor, enjoyed these visits to the Godebskis, and he took a special delight in playing with the young children - cutting out paper dolls, telling stories, romping around on all fours. Young Mimi and her brother Jean were in the first stages of piano tutelage in 1908, and Ravel decided to encourage their studies by composing some little pieces for them portraying their favorite fairy stories.
Ravel based his music on four traditional tales: Sleeping Beauty, Hop o' My Thumb, Empress of the Pagodas and Beauty and the Beast. To these he added an evocation of The Fairy Garden as a postlude. In 1911, he made a ravishing orchestral transcription of the original five pieces, added to them a prelude, an opening scene and connecting interludes, and produced a ballet with a scenario based on the Sleeping Beauty story for the Théâtre des Arts in Paris. The production, though it quickly disappeared from the boards, was successful at the premiere, and its warm charm led the celebrated dancer Nijinsky, who was in the audience, to tell Ravel, "It's like dancing at a family party."
Such child-like miniatures as comprise Ma Mère l'Oye were much to Ravel's impeccable taste. Hardly over five feet tall, he was most comfortable in surroundings that were small in scale and precisely managed. Lawrence Davies wrote, "The suite can be regarded as the equivalent of the dwarf trees, tiny glass models and china ornaments that filled the composer's diminutive room [in his home]." Especially in the dazzling translucence of the orchestral transcription that the composer provided for the ballet, these tiny tone paintings display the polish, balance and logic that led Stravinsky to admiringly describe their creator as "a Swiss watchmaker." To properly evoke the youthful naïveté of the fantasy tales, Ravel composed in a deliberately simplified style, characterized by suave melody and luscious, atmospheric harmony unruffled by rhythmic or textural complexities.
The Mother Goose Suite comprises the five orchestrated movements of Ravel's original piano version. The tiny Pavane de la Belle au Bois dormant ("Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty"), only twenty measures long, depicts the Good Fairy, who watches over the Princess during her somnolence.
Petit Poucet ("Hop o' My Thumb") treats the old legend taken from Perrault's anthology of 1697. "A boy believed," noted Ravel of the tale, "that he could easily find his path by means of the bread crumbs which he had scattered wherever he passed; but he was very much surprised when he could not find a single crumb: the birds had come and eaten everything up." The strings meander through scales as the boy wanders through the woods, with a few of his aviary nemeses returning to scavenge for the last morsels of bread.
Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes ("Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas") portrays a young girl cursed with ugliness by a wicked fairy. According to Ravel's inscription, "She undressed herself and went into the bath. The pagodas [grotesque little figures made of porcelain, crystal or precious jewels] began to sing and play on instruments; some had theorbos [large lutes] made of walnut shells; some had viols made of almond shells; for they were obliged to proportion the instruments to their figures." This tale, too, has a happy ending in which the Empress' beauty is restored. The music is decidedly Oriental in character, and is playable in the original version almost entirely on the black keys of the piano.
Ravel prefaced Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête ("Conversations of Beauty and the Beast") with lines from the tale as interpreted by Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757: " 'When I think how good-hearted you are, you do not seem to me so ugly.' 'Yes, I have, indeed, a kind heart; but I am a monster.' 'There are many men more monstrous than you.' 'If I had wit, I would invent a fine compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast.' 'Beauty, will you be my wife?' 'No, Beast!' 'I die content since I have the pleasure of seeing you again.' 'No, my dear Beast, you shall not die; you shall live to be my husband!' The Beast had disappeared, and she saw at her feet only a prince more beautiful than Love, who thanked her for having broken his enchantment." This piece, influenced by a certain Satie-esque insouciance, is among the most graphic in Ravel's output. The high woodwinds sing the delicate words of the Beauty, while the Beast is portrayed by the lumbering contrabassoon. At first the two converse, politely taking turns in the dialogue, but after their betrothal, both melodies are entwined, and finally the Beast's theme is transfigured into a floating wisp in the most ethereal reaches of the solo violin's range.
The rapt, introspective splendor of the closing Le jardin féerique ("Fairy Garden") is not derived from a particular story, but is Ravel's masterful summation of the beauty, mystery and wonder that pervade Ma Mère l'Oye. Its tranquil, shimmering serenity is matched among Ravel's works only by some pages from the opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges, his other masterwork inspired by a vision of childhood. During this final scene of the ballet, Prince Charming awakens the sleeping Princess Florine with a kiss, and all the characters gather around the royal couple as the Good Fairy bestows her blessing.
Roland-Manuel, the composer's friend and biographer, wrote of Ma Mère l'Oye, "By virtue of a privilege which he shared with the greatest creative artists, the composer never lost, in his obstinate determination to acquire technical mastery, that fresh sensibility which is the privilege of childhood and is normally lost with advancing years. He retained intact a freedom of imagination and an artless power.... Ma Mère l'Oye shows us the secret of his profound nature and the soul of a child who has never left fairyland, who does not distinguish between the natural and the artificial, and who appears to believe that everything can be imagined and made real in the material world, if everything is infallibly logical in the mind."
Mômoprecóce, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
(b. 1887, Rio de Janeiro; d. 1959, Rio de Janeiro)
Composed for piano in 1919-1920; orchestrated in 1929.
Premiered on February 23, 1930 in Paris, conducted by Enrique Fernández Arbós with Magdalena Tagliaferro as soloist.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, three horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Duration: approximately 24 minutes.
Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil's greatest composer, had little formal training. He learned the cello from his father and earned a living as a young man playing with popular bands, from which he derived much of his musical background. From his earliest years, Villa-Lobos was enthralled with the indigenous songs and dances of his native land, and he made several trips into the Brazilian interior to study the native music and ceremonies. Beginning with his earliest works, around 1910, his music shows the influence of the melodies, rhythms and sonorities that he discovered. He began to compose prolifically, and, though often ridiculed for his daring new style by other Brazilian musicians, he attracted the attention of the pianist Artur Rubinstein, who helped him receive a Brazilian government grant in 1923 that enabled him to spend several years in Paris, where his international reputation was established. Upon his permanent return to Rio de Janeiro in 1930, Villa-Lobos became an important figure in public musical education, urging the cultivation of Brazilian songs and dances in the schools. He made his first visit to the United States in 1944, and spent the remaining years of his life traveling in America and Europe to conduct and promote his own works and those of other Brazilian composers. Villa-Lobos summarized his creative philosophy in an interview with New York Times critic Olin Downes by saying that he did not think of music as "culture, or education, or even as a device for quieting the nerves, but as something more potent, mystical and profound in its effect. Music has the power to communicate, to heal, to ennoble, when it is made part of man's life and consciousness."
Villa-Lobos derived considerable inspiration for his music from the children's songs of Brazil - the sixteen-movement piano suite known as Cirandas, the Ciranda das Sete Notas for Bassoon and String Orchestra, and the series of miniatures for piano called Prole do Bebê ("The Baby's Family") all are indebted to the simple play tunes that he discovered on his trips around the country. In 1919-1920, while living in Paris, he composed a set of eight piano pieces based on children's songs under the title Carnaval das crianças brasileiras ("Carnival of the Brazilian Children"), depicting the merry-making of the youngsters during the annual Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro. "It is truly the most popular fiesta in my country," the composer said in an interview in Paris in 1929, "the most original, typical, the best in Rio. What creates the most vivid impression there, during the three days, is to see in this mad dance the little masked children, rich and poor, aristocratic and bourgeois, all joined together in one idea - to divert themselves freely and with complete abandon." The titles of the suite's eight sections evoke colorful images of the traditional festival: "1. A little Pierrot rides on the handle of a broom; 2. A small red devil with a long tail snorts and jumps; 3. A little Pierrette weeps, afraid of an ugly mask; 4. A young Domino makes shrill sounds with a little bell; 5. The amorous intrigue of a tiny trap-door window; 6. Frolics of a band of masquerading children; 7. The sounds of flutes and horns of the Carnival musicians; 8. A wild dance in which the adults also join." In 1929, the Brazilian pianist Magdalena Tagliaferro, then also living in Paris, requested that Villa-Lobos create a new work for her appearances during the upcoming season. During a visit to Rio that summer, Villa-Lobos arranged the Carnaval das crianças brasileiras as a fantasy for orchestra and solo piano, and titled the score Mômoprecóce, a term meaning both "precocious lad" and "young Momus," i.e., the King of the Brazilian Carnival. Tagliaferro gave the premiere the following February in Paris. With its references to native dance styles and songs and Villa-Lobos' brilliant invention, Mômoprecóce captures something of the unbounded enthusiasm and soaring spirits of the jubilant Brazilian festival.
Pictures at an Exhibition
(b. 1839, Karevo, Pskov District, Russia; d. 1881, St. Petersburg)
Transcribed for Orchestra by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Composed in 1874; transcribed in 1923.
Orchestral version premiered on May 3, 1923 in Paris, conducted by Sergei Koussevitzky.
Instrumentation: piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, E-flat alto saxophone, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, gong, two harps, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 32 minutes.
Though the history of the Russian nation extends far back into the mists of time, the country's cultural life is of relatively recent origin. Russian interest in art, music and theater dates only from the time of Peter the Great (1672-1725), the powerful monarch who coaxed his country into the modern world by importing ideas, technology and skilled practitioners from western Europe. To fuel the nation's musical life, Peter, Catherine and their successors depended on a steady stream of well-compensated German, French and Italian artists who brought their latest tonal wares to the magnificent capital city of St. Petersburg. This tradition of imported music continued well into the 19th century: Berlioz, for example, enjoyed greater success in Russia than he did in his native France; Verdi composed La Forza del Destino on a commission from St. Petersburg, where it was first performed.
In the years around 1850, with the spirit of nationalism sweeping across Europe, several young Russian artists banded together to rid their art of foreign influences in order to establish a distinctive nationalist character for their works. Leading this movement was a group of composers known as "The Five," whose members included Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, César Cui and Mily Balakirev. Among the allies that The Five found in other fields was the artist and architect Victor Hartmann, with whom Mussorgsky became close personal friends. Hartmann's premature death at 39 stunned the composer and the entire Russian artistic community. Vladimir Stassov, a noted critic and the journalistic champion of the Russian arts movement, organized a memorial exhibit of Hartmann's work in February 1874, and it was under the inspiration of that showing that Mussorgsky conceived his Pictures at an Exhibition.
At the time of the exhibit, Mussorgsky was engaged in preparations for the first public performance of his opera Boris Godunov, and he was unable to devote any time to his Pictures until early summer. When he took up the piece in June, he worked with unaccustomed speed. "'Hartmann' is bubbling over, just as Boris did," he wrote to a friend. "Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music — I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough." The movements mostly depict sketches, watercolors and architectural designs shown publicly at the Hartmann exhibit, though Mussorgsky based two or three sections on canvases that he had been shown privately by the artist before his death. The composer linked his sketches together with a musical "Promenade" in which he depicted his own rotund self shuffling - in an uneven meter - from one picture to the next. Though Mussorgsky was not given to much excitement over his own creations, he took special delight in this one. Especially in the masterful transcription for orchestra that Maurice Ravel did in 1922 for the Parisian concerts of conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, it is a work of vivid impact to which listeners and performers alike can return with undiminished pleasure.
Promenade. According to Stassov, this recurring section depicts Mussorgsky "roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and, at times sadly, thinking of his friend."
The Gnome. Hartmann's drawing is for a fantastic wooden nutcracker representing a gnome who gives off savage shrieks while he waddles about on short, bandy legs.
Promenade — The Old Castle. A troubadour (represented by the saxophone) sings a doleful lament before a foreboding, ruined ancient fortress.
Promenade — Tuileries. Mussorgsky's subtitle is "Dispute of the Children after Play." Hartmann's picture shows a corner of the famous Parisian garden filled with nursemaids and their youthful charges.
Bydlo. Hartmann's picture depicts a rugged wagon drawn by oxen. The peasant driver sings a plaintive melody (solo tuba) heard first from afar, then close-by, before the cart passes away into the distance.
Promenade — Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells. Hartmann's costume design for the 1871 fantasy ballet Trilby shows dancers enclosed in enormous egg shells, with only their arms, legs and heads protruding.
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. The title was given to the music by Stassov. Mussorgsky originally called this movement "Two Jews: one rich, the other poor." It was inspired by a pair of pictures which Hartmann presented to the composer showing two residents of the Warsaw ghetto, one rich and pompous (a weighty unison for strings and winds), the other poor and complaining (muted trumpet). Mussorgsky based both themes on incantations he had heard on visits to Jewish synagogues.
The Marketplace at Limoges. A lively sketch of a bustling market, with animated conversations flying among the female vendors.
Catacombs, Roman Tombs. Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua. Hartmann's drawing shows him being led by a guide with a lantern through cavernous underground tombs. The movement's second section, bearing the title "With the Dead in a Dead Language," is a mysterious transformation of the Promenade theme.
The Hut on Fowl's Legs. Hartmann's sketch is a design for an elaborate clock suggested by Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch of Russian folklore who eats human bones she has ground into paste with her mortar and pestle. She also can fly through the air on her fantastic mortar, and Mussorgsky's music suggests a wild, midnight ride.
The Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky's grand conclusion to his suite was inspired by Hartmann's plan for a gateway for the city of Kiev in the massive old Russian style crowned with a cupola in the shape of a Slavic warrior's helmet. The majestic music suggests both the imposing bulk of the edifice (never built, incidentally) and a brilliant procession passing through its arches. The work ends with a heroic statement of the Promenade theme and a jubilant pealing of the great bells of the city.
©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda