Program 7

Suite from Mother Goose

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Composed for piano in 1908; orchestrated in 1911.

Orchestral version premiered on January 28, 1912 in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Grovlez.

“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 those 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.”

Scottish Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, Op. 46

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Composed in 1879-1880.

Premiered in September 1880 in Hamburg, with Pablo de Sarasate as soloist.

Max Bruch, like many Romantic composers, was interested throughout his life in folk song. In 1863, he published twelve Scottish folk airs in four-part settings, and incorporated German, British and Hebrew traditional music into his works. (One of his best-known compositions is the Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra, based on an ancient chant of the Hebrew ritual.) When Bruch was conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society from 1878 to 1880, he took the opportunity to gather first-hand knowledge of Great Britain’s indigenous music, and, like Mendelssohn (one of the gods in Bruch’s musical pantheon), he was inspired by the music, lore and land of Scotland to produce one of his finest works — the Fantasy with Free Use of Scottish Airs for Violin and Orchestra.

In a letter to the publisher Simrock on July 30, 1880 explaining the work’s appellation, Bruch wrote, “The title ‘Fantasy’ is very general, and as a rule refers to a short piece rather than to one in several movements (all of which, moreover, are fully worked-out and developed). However, this work cannot properly be called a concerto because the form of the whole is so completely free, and because folk-melodies are used.” Abraham Veinus added, “Bruch operates freely with a set of Scottish folk melodies, distinguished, as such melodies are, by a wholesome simplicity and beauty. Grafted on to this is the kind of elaborate virtuoso technique which usually brings the house down. Bruch’s harmonic idiom and his orchestration technique run to juicy, well-rounded and solidly set sonorities.”

The Fantasy is in four movements rather than the concerto’s traditional three. The opening movement is divided almost equally between a solemn introduction and an elegant setting of the tune Auld Rob Morris. The music scholar Wilhelm Altmann, a Berlin friend of Bruch, said that the Fantasy had been inspired by the books of Sir Walter Scott. The prominence of the harp, with its bardic and folk associations, prompted Altmann to continue that this opening movement represents “an old bard who contemplates a ruined castle and laments the glorious times of old.” The vigorous second movement, subtitled Dance, is based on the song Hey, the Dusty Miller. Connecting passages resembling recitative lead without pause to the next movement, a richly bedecked version of the touching Scottish love ballad I’m a-doun for lack o’ Johnnie. The rousing finale uses the traditional war song Scots wha hae, which, according to legend, was sounded by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Composed in 1898.

Premiered June 21, 1898 in London, conducted by the composer.

Gabriel Fauré was one of the great figures of French music at the turn of the twentieth century. A student of Saint-Saëns, a master organist, the teacher of Ravel, Enesco, Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger, director of the Paris Conservatoire, and a composer of immense skill and refinement, Fauré was best suited to composing in the small forms of song and chamber music. Among the most successful of his handful of works for orchestra is the beautiful suite that he drew from his incidental music to Maeterlinck’s symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, which he created for a production of the dramaat the Prince of Wales Theatre, London in 1898. (Fauré generally disliked writing for large ensembles, and often entrusted his most talented students with the orchestration of his pieces. Charles Koechlin was assigned the original theatrical version of Pelléas; Fauré based his 1901 suite upon the orchestration of his pupil.) This haunting and haunted drama, which premiered in Paris in 1893, embodied the Symbolists’ philosophy that mood is more important than plot. Such dramatic incidents as occur often defy logical continuity, seeming rather to be isolated events intended to suggest associations and feelings to the audience through the use of language and setting. Robert Layton summarized the drama’s plot: “Pelléas is set in mythical Allemonde, the protagonists in the drama remain shadowy and we are left knowing little or nothing of their background. Prince Golaud out riding one day discovers Mélisande, weeping and lost in the forest, and takes her under his protection. Maeterlinck’s play charts her growing infatuation for his younger half-brother, Pelléas, and Golaud’s ensuing jealousy.” The play inspired incidental music from Jean Sibelius for a 1905 production in Helsinki (in Finnish!), a concert overture from Cyril Scott in 1912, and a vast symphonic poem from Arnold Schoenberg in 1903. It also proved to be the perfect subject for the wispy, Impressionistic idiom of Debussy, and was equally well suited to the art of Fauré, whose incidental music preceded Debussy’s opera by four years.

Fauré’s musical style, though looking forward in some of its techniques to Impressionism, is more refined, classical and understated than that of Debussy, concerning itself with purity of line and precise formal balance rather than with mood-painting through unconventional harmonies and indistinct structures. Julien Teirsot described the elegant essence of Fauré’s music in these words: “It is the spirit of Hellenism that is reborn in him.... He thrusts himself beyond the spheres to bring back pure beauty.” Such terms as “taste,” “unerring judgment,” “delicacy,” “impeccable workmanship” and “sensibility” attach themselves easily and appropriately to the music of Fauré, and they certainly apply to this lovely Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. The Prélude was intended to be played before the curtain rises to evoke the play’s aura of melancholy and mystery. There is a meditative quality about this music, a deep stillness that rises only briefly to peaks of tension before again subsiding. The horn-calls near the end invest the music with a suggestion of the antique, sylvan setting of the drama. The second movement (Fileuse) depicts Mélisande at her spinning wheel. The whirring of the wheel is portrayed by the steady rhythmic filigree in the strings, which serves as background for the heroine’s plaintive song, intoned by the oboe. The third movement, Sicilienne, is one of Fauré’s most famous inspirations, though it was not originally composed for the incidental music for the play. Pressed for time during his preparations for the opening night of the London Pelléas, the composer borrowed this work from a chamber piece first written for cello and piano. In the London production, its quality of bittersweet nostalgia was used to underline the touching love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande. The finale, The Death of Mélisande, is a mournful elegy of quiet intensity.

Milton Cross wrote of the exquisite art of Gabriel Fauré, “In Fauré’s music, we have the art of understatement. The pure and classic beauty that pervades his greatest works is derived from simplicity, restraint, delicate sensibility, refinement, and repose.”

Suite from Carmen

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Composed in 1872-1875.

Premiered on March 3, 1875 in Paris, conducted by Adolphe Deloffre.

Carmen, Prosper Mérimée’s earthy novella of 1845, was an unlikely subject for Georges Bizet to have chosen for representation at the Opéra-Comique, whose bourgeois works had accustomed the theater’s audiences to lighthearted, happy-ending stories disposed in breezy musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue. Heroism, tragedy and recitative were reserved for the hallowed environs of the Paris Opéra. Even though Bizet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, smoothed the edges of the story and the characters (Carmen was little more than a raw prostitute in Mérimée’s novella), critics and audience were bemused by the tragic progression of its plot, the depth of its characterization, the lubriciousness of its emotions, and the cumulative power of its impact at the opera’s premiere on March 3, 1875. Though Carmen did not initially achieve the success Bizet had hoped for, neither was it the fiasco that some legends later made of it. It was retained in the Opéra-Comique repertory, and given 35 times before the end of the 1875 season and thirteen the next, though Bizet died in Paris exactly three months after the premiere, knowing little of the opera’s success. Carmen then was produced to much acclaim across Europe and in America (first at New York’s Academy of Music on October 23, 1878), and by the time that it was revived at the Opéra-Comique, in 1883, the original spoken dialogue had been replaced with composed recitatives by the New Orleans-born composer Ernest Guiraud. Carmen was invariably performed in this through-composed version until Bizet’s original score again came to light in the 1960s.

The lure of Carmen continues unabated. Carmen is perhaps the most frequently performed opera in the world, having reached its 3,000th performance in Paris alone within a half-century of its premiere in 1875. In America, Carmen is one of the “operatic A-B-C’s,” the three most popular works at the Metropolitan Opera — Aida and La Bohème complete the triumvirate. It has been recorded some three-dozen times, more than any other opera save Rigoletto (according to Alan Blyth’s compendious book about Opera on Record), and it was the third opera to be recorded complete, when Emmy Destinn created the title role (in German!) in 1908, preceded only by Aida (1906) and I Pagliacci (1907). In addition to its innumerable stage presentations, three unusual versions of the opera have appeared during recent decades: Peter Brook’s controversial adaptation as a play-with-music, which emphasized the grittiness of Prosper Mérimée’s novella of 1845 on which the opera was based; Carlos Saura’s spectacular flamenco movie with Bizet’s music as accompaniment for some of the most exciting dance ever photographed; and a filmed production of the complete opera with Julia Migenes-Johnson and Placido Domingo shot on location in Spain.

Carmen continues to excite and intrigue as do few other musical works. The fascination of the opera is not just in the glorious music but also in the characterization and dramatic power that electrify the score: Carmen herself is an unfathomable mixture of dark sensuality and steely scorn; Don José is an all-too-human Everyman, drawn like a moth into the searing flame of Carmen’s temptations; Micaëla is sweet and good and pitiable and defeated by events beyond her control; Escamillo, the Toreador, parades his machismo as a mask for his lack of feeling and tenderness.

With their abundance of melody, exotic Spanish milieu and vivid orchestral colors, excerpts from Carmen have long been concert-hall favorites. “If you want to learn how to orchestrate,” counseled Richard Strauss, a master of symphonic sonority, “don’t study Wagner’s scores, study Carmen.... It is sheer perfection. What wonderful economy, how every note is in its proper place.”

The Toreadors is the brilliant music heard as the procession of bull fighters enters the arena in Seville in Act IV. In the seductive Seguidilla (Act I), Carmen lures Don José to a local tavern. In the Habanera (Act I), which Bizet based on a popular song by the Spanish composer Sebastián de Yradier, Carmen sings of the fickleness of her love. The Song of the Toreador (Act II) is the swaggering melody of the haughty bullfighter Escamillo. The Danse Bohême (Act II) is the fiery music marking Carmen’s return to her Gypsy band after fleeing from Seville.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

August Symphony Series performance location

Door Community Auditorium - Fish Creek 

The Peninsula Music Festival - 10347 Highway 42

Unit B Green Gables Shops 

P.O. Box 340, Ephraim, Wisconsin  54211


Phone: (920) 854-4060