This little suite and Sheherazade kind of go together in my book because they both combine music with storytelling! Ravel wrote Ma Mere L'Oye (or Mother Goose, in English) originally as a piano duet for two of his young students- Mimi and Jean Godebski. Ravel was good with kids, and actually wanted them to play the premier of the piano suite, but Mimi was only 6 at the time and not confident in her skills, so another pair of kids premiered it.
I find it funny that the piano suite is subtitled as 'Five Children's Pieces', and we still play them more than a hundred years later! Anyway, Ravel orchestrated the suite, and even added some more music later to make it a little ballet! How cool, eh?
The pieces are based off of faerie tales, except for the last one, which isn't based off of any tale in particular, but is meant to evoke spelderous magic and grandeur.
1. Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty
This is a very short movement. The gentle melody carried by first the second flute and then developed by the first flute is very tranquil, but also carries a hint of melancholy. I really like the sweet clarinet work in this movement. The ending is very quiet- as the kingdom falls asleep for 100 years, waiting for the prince who will awaken their princess. This part of the suite reminds me of Pavane for a Dead Princess, another work by Ravel.
2. Little Tom Thumb
Here, Ravel's notes on the score tell us exactly what he was going for with his music.
He believed he'd easily find his way because of the bread that he'd strewn all along his path; but he was very surprised to find not a single crumb: the birds had come and eaten everything.
The melody wanders unsurely through many different time signatures, much like the way Little Tom is currently wandering aimlessly through the forest. I really like how Ravel represents the birds in his music! A solo violin does a weird glissando thing, and the piccolo and flute make fluttery, chirping noises.
There are neat solos for most of the woodwinds in the orchestra. The Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Flute, and the Piccolo gets the melody towards the end.
3. Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas
This is my favorite movement! It has a lot of fun, unique sounds, and the musical texture is one of simmering excitement and playful wonder. There's also a little mystery, too! There are some cool solos in this movement. The piccolo solo at the beginning is called for at a lot of auditions, and I think it's awesome because it uses the low, whistley range of the instrument!
I really like it later in the movement, things quiet down and get a little mysterious, and the celesta takes the piccolo's melody, and the different timbre gives it a whole new feeling!
This movement is in a wicked hard key signature to play in- F# Major! That's six sharps you have to navigate. The quick, light passages that dominate don't make it any easier, either.
Also, the story behind this one is unbearably cute. So Laideronette is a princess cursed to be the ugliest woman in the world by a witch who has taken over her kingdom and banished her. On her travels (to what is implied to be China), she meets a green serpent who is a prince cursed by the same witch. As they are wandering through the forest, little bugs and animals who are charmed by Laideronette's goodness make little tiny instruments (piccolo, anyone?) and play music to guide the two to a magical pagoda. The pagoda has enchanted baths where if you use them, the spell will be broken!
4. Conversations of Beauty and the Beast
This movement is sort of a waltz, gently paced. The first part is very serene, but true to the dynamic of Beauty and the Beast, there comes a bit of strife in the later sections. A highlight of this movement is the use of the contrabassoon to represent the beast. The sound is fitting for his character- deep, growly, and with a rough edge. The melody it plays is gloomy and grouchy, showing the combined feelings of sadness and anger that dominate his moods. There is a lovely melody that represents Beauty, carried first by the Clarinet, then Flute, then Piccolo, and there's also a high-pitched and slender violin solo!
5. The Faerie Garden
The mood is quiet and awe-inspiring as this final movement begins. There is a beautiful violin solo accompanied by celesta and woodwinds, which serves to familiarize and brighten the solemn majestic tone. Also notable is a viola solo! It's very beautiful, and I like the viola, it's got a unique timbre! A magnificent crescendo takes its time, but when it finally arrives, the effect sends shivers down my spine, and makes for a magical way to end the suite!