Tomb and Enchanted Garden
Music for Fairy Tales and Legends by Ravel, Berlioz and Stravinsky
“Paris, the capital of the 19th century”: Walter Benjamin’s succinct phrase can be illustrated by a wealth of examples. The chronological coincidence with which major cultural events converged on the Seine between the French Revolution and the First World War is impressive in itself. For example, Hector Berlioz’s lyric scene Cléopâtre was heard for the first time there in summer 1829 – only a few days before Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, one of the most important operas of the 19th century, had its premiere. Both works are milestones of Romantic music and characteristic of an era in which tensions would erupt during the July Revolution the following summer. The situation is similar with the two outer works on today’s programme. Only two months separate the first performance of the piano version of Ma Mère l’Oye, Maurice Ravel’s pieces for children, in Paris in 1910 and the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet L’Oiseau de feu – fairy-tale music that made enchanted gardens resound with unprecedented splendour on the eve of the First World War.
On Mother Goose’s Lap: Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye
When the Société Musicale Indépendante celebrated its founding with a concert at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, Ravel played the premiere of Claude Debussy’s piano piece D’un cahier d’esquisses [From a Sketchbook] but left the performance of a new work of his own up to other interpreters: two girls, ten and eleven years old, presented Ma Mère l’Oye (My Mother Goose), five pieces for piano duet inspired by fairy tales by Charles Perrault and other fairy-tale collectors of the Baroque period. The positive reception of the work prompted Ravel to arrange it as an orchestral suite in 1911 and to expand this version as music for a ballet. The suite for medium-sized orchestra displays Ravel’s orchestrational skills from their most fascinating side:
– Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty): Flutes and other woodwinds above striding pizzicatos and harmonics in the harp; the quintessence of French music in twenty bars.
– Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb): He loses his way in the forest with uncertain whole-tone steps; the oboe and English horn lament while other instruments twitter.
– Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; freely translated from the literary source as “The ugly duckling, ruler of the porcelain figurines”): Composed for the black keys in F sharp major, expanded with polytonality; glittering, gorgeous colours modelled on Javanese gamelan music recalled by Ravel.
– Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast): The clarinet first turns down the contrabassoon’s proposal of marriage in this slow waltz but then the spell is broken.
– Le Jardin féerique (The Enchanted Garden): Composed for the white keys in diatonic C major, far removed from Laideronnette. An almost classically simple hymn with tremendous power.
In the Face of a Poisonous Snake: Hector Berlioz’s Cléopâtre
Even a world capital can be provincial at times. Many musicians in Paris had problems with the Prix de Rome, which was presented every year in various genres of art. Anyone who wanted to receive this prestigious award in the category of music had to compose a work for voice(s) and orchestra on a prescribed text under examination conditions. The jury’s preference for operatic scenes in which legendary figures breathe their last on earth in noble simplicity and serene grandeur was demonstrated with unintentional humour in Berlioz’s four Prix de Rome cantatas. After being eliminated in the preliminary round in 1826, during the following years he first had to make a maiden from Antioch unhappy (Herminie, 1828) and bury Orpheus (La Mort d’Orphée, 1827) and Cleopatra (Cléopâtre, 1829) before the prize was awarded to him with the decadent end of the favourite libertine of French Romanticism (La Mort de Sardanapale, 1830).
Although these compulsory exercises must have been an ordeal for Berlioz, they suited his penchant for imaginary theatre. Cléopâtre, in particular, is musical “head cinema” par excellence. Berlioz summarized the plot thus in his memoirs: “The Queen of Egypt clasps the asp to her bosom and dies in convulsions; but before dying, she invokes the spirits of the Pharaohs and in holy fear demands to know if she, a queen of crimes and dissipations, may hope to enter those mighty vaults erected to the shades of monarchs distinguished for their fame and virtue.” Berlioz demonstrated his solidarity with Cleopatra with almost raging force: the introduction, recitative, two-part aria, meditation and epilogue are aglow with much more drama until Cleopatra’s final collapse than the academic guardians of public morals liked. In his sharp-tongued memoirs Berlioz recounts his apologia to the juror François-Adrien Boïeldieu: “I assure you, sir, I did my best” – and Boïeldieu supposedly answered: “Your best is the enemy of the good ...”
Enchanted by Flapping Wings: Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu
As entertaining as they are, Berlioz’s memoirs are no more reliable than the autobiographical statements of Igor Stravinsky. The later his recollections, the smaller becomes the part that the dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine was allowed to play as a leading collaborator on the ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), since “Fokine was easily the most disagreeable man I have ever worked with. In fact ... he was the most disagreeable man I have ever met.”
Fokine and the director Sergei Grigoriev drew on Alexander Afanasyev’s collection of fairy tales, published between 1855 and 1863, for the Firebird ballet, merging the stories of the immortal villain Kashchei and the firebird and combining them with the human sphere of Ivan Tsarevich, who is searching for love.
The murmuring A flat minor figures in the low strings wind around a tritone during the introduction, suggesting the different worlds of the characters. The ponderous thirds represent Kashchei and the half-tone steps, the brilliant chromaticism of the title character, whose flapping wings are depicted with all the resources of a late Romantic or Impressionist orchestra. Because of its inexhaustible instrumental imagination this work goes far beyond the tone painting that Stravinsky disdained.
The firebird bursts into the oppressive calm of Kashchei’s enchanted garden with trills and glissandos, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich. The captive princesses who appear on the scene later extend the palette with an elfin scherzo and an old Slavic round dance, the khorovod. It is no wonder that Ivan Tsarevich falls in love with one of the princesses, the beautiful Tsarevna, to the sounds of this music. In the meantime, enchanted bells ring in the morning; Ivan is captured and questioned by Kashchei. The firebird rescues him with two brilliant numbers, however: Kashchei’s men are rendered harmless by the Infernal Dance and the E flat minor bassoon solo of the Berceuse [Lullaby]. The way to the chest containing the secret of Kashchei’s immortality is now clear.
After the death of the ogre, the brief second tableau follows as an epilogue. The enchanted kingdom disappears and the petrified knights come to life again – “general rejoicing” breaks out, beginning with a horn solo that revolves around a folk tune. Variations of the tune build up to exultant chord changes ascending to the B major tonic in the final bars. There is a transition from C major and C sharp major to the distant key of F major and back again – a tonal range in which the tritone from the opening bars reappears – the “diabolus in musica” [devil in music]. It is the final greeting of the devil to whom Kashchei was sent just before the happy ending.