top of page

MAURICE RAVEL (1756-1791)

Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye (1908-10)


I. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant

II. Petit Poucet

III. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes

IV. Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête

V. Le jardin féerique

Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France, and died on December 28, 1937, in Paris. The complete ballet was first performed on January 21, 1912, at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Grovlez. The suite is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 2 horns, timpani, various percussion, harp, celesta, strings.

Maurice Ravel and his contemporary Claude Debussy, stalwart figures of the impressionist aesthetic, are well honored for their sonic wizardry of conjuring images from the most intimate setting of a piano solo to the colossal symphonic arena of the orchestra. Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose) represents a stunning study in Ravel’s masterful orchestration. 


Drawing upon inspiration from Charles Perrault's 1697 Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose Tales), Ma Mère l'Oye began as a humble piano work for four hands composed between 1908 and 1910 titled, Five Children's Pieces for Piano Four Hands. At the behest of his publisher Jacques Durand and manager Jacques Rouche, the powerfully evocative pieces, yet easy enough for a child, demanded a much larger musical vehicle. Durand and Roche urged the composer to orchestrate the set into a suite and expand it further into a ballet. Thus Mother Goose grew from a piano to an orchestral suite and finally into a ballet. The evocative stories that comprised the original five piano pieces are the same as the suite, but its transformation is magnificent; a new perspective. The difference in emotional delivery and color is akin to a 2D versus a 3D image. Hard to imagine that in its orchestral rendition, the work ever was a piano piece; such was the skill and sorcery of Ravel's orchestral palette. So it's no surprise he would orchestrate similarly from piano to orchestra, Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition 12 years later in 1922.


Each movement of the suite evokes a scene from Perrault's tales and cherry-picks some 17th and 18th-century French children's stories. The work runs for 16 minutes.

I. Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty (Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant)

Ravel opens the suite with the classic tale of the sleeping princess, forced into an eternal slumber to be awakened by a prince. Like the composer's Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), solo flutes begin an ancient processional, colored delicately with solo wind passages and string pizzicato. The beauty of Princess Florine is ever-present in the simplicity of the orchestration. Sounds so delicate, they could disintegrate with a whisper. Violins end the brief melody with the appearance of a Good Fairy waiting for the beauty to awaken.

II. Tom Thumb (Petit Poucet)

A winding path of breadcrumbs in the form of ascending violin scales opens the story of Petit Poucet, or Tom Thumb, the youngest and wisest of seven children whose parents plan to abandon them in the night forest. Tom overhears the plan and sets breadcrumbs the day before to lead his brothers back home. This path is traceable from the rising and falling continuous flow of eighth notes accompanying a wandering English horn, clarinet, and flute melody. Birds, however, have eaten the bread, and the brothers become lost. As the brothers journey without crumbs to guide them, they continue in sadness, their path on a crossroad with a monstrous ogre.

III. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas (Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes)

Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy's tale of The Green Serpent shimmers with effervescent sounds of string trills, pizzicato, sparks of stopped horn, and prancing pentatonic figurations in piccolo and celeste. The tale brings together a princess, cursed into an ugly girl (Laideronnette), and a serpent as they adventure through the Empire of the Pagodas, becoming friends. Finally, the serpent is revealed as the king of the land, and both transform back into their original selves to fall in love for a storybook wedding. 

IV. Conversations of Beauty and the Beast (Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête)

The heart and soul of the suite reside in the story of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's Beauty and the prince turned Beast. In 3/4 time, the moderate waltz is not exceptionally bright and romantic. Before there was the Disney adaptation, there was Ravel, and he was channeling the darker undertones of the story. Solo clarinet speaks as Beauty, and the Beast will answer with the voice of the contrabassoon. Ravel provides the exact dialogue taken from different parts of the story; the discussion touches upon the early friendship, the Beast's proposal and rejection, and concludes with lifting the spell.



When I think of your good heart, you do not seem so ugly. 



Oh, I should say so! I have a good heart, but I am a monster.



There are many men who are more monstrous than you.



If I were witty, I would pay you a great compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast.



Beauty, would you like to be my wife?



No, Beast!



I die happy because I have the pleasure of seeing you once again.



No, my dear Beast, you shall not die.

You shall live to become my husband.


At this moment, the Beast disappears, beholding at her feet a handsome prince.



V. The Enchanted Garden (Le jardin féerique)

The suite's finale comes full circle, returning to the realm of Sleeping Beauty, softly with a stunningly tender string chorale. Cupid leads Prince Charming to Princess Florine, and she awakens serendipitously as the sun rises. As the music builds, rising to its first peak, an expressive solo violin line peppered with celeste is Beauty awakened. Finally, the Good Fairy appears, blessing the royal couple. The music elevates to a glorious dawn chorus, replete with a congregation of bird songs, fanfare, church bells, and all things happily ever after. © MTF

(Notes By Michael-Thomas Foumai)


Unleashing a universe of sonic imagination, Darius Milhaud's jazz ballet conjures the primordial passion of humanity through African mythology in The Creation of the World. Sculpting beauty and elegance, Mozart's Flute Concerto in G bridges a gateway into the realms of sorcery with Ravel's extended universe of fairy-tales in Mother Goose and Stravinsky's spellbinding magical revolution in The Firebird. © MTF

bottom of page