Magazine article Musical Times

Into the Woods: Retelling the Wartime Fairytales of Maurice Ravel

Magazine article Musical Times

Into the Woods: Retelling the Wartime Fairytales of Maurice Ravel

Article excerpt

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FOR CENTURIES woods have been places of mystery and enchantment, peopled with fairies and witches wicked and benign, sleeping princesses, gallant princes and fantastic and terrifying creatures of all descriptions. Tom Thumb and his brothers, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White all lose themselves in the woods, Laideronnette and the Beauty's Beast hide their ugliness from the world in forest-bound castles, and the Sleeping Beauty and her court wait amidst the trees for a hundred years. Woods are terrible but entrancing, full of magic and impregnable fantasy.

In 1910 Maurice Ravel found inspiration in these tree-filled tales when he composed his Ma mère I'Oye {Mother Goose) suite for piano duet. The fairytales of Ma mère à Oye present the world as it should be, untarnished by the constraints and the ugliness of reality. Each of these beloved tales is constructed after traditional narrative patterns, where good is eventually triumphant, the morality is incontestable and the magic all-encompassing. In his 'Autobiographical sketch' of 1928 Ravel wrote of Ma mère l'Oye that his intention had been to evoke what he termed 'the poetry of childhood'.' His use of fairytales in this context indicates their essential connection with his own image of childhood.

Five years after writing Ma mère VOye, Ravel returned to the woods of fairytale in 'Ronde', the third of his Trois chansons pour choeur mixte sans accompagnement. In the woods of Ormonde, we are warned, we might find witches and sorcerers, hobgoblins, werewolves and many other magical and dangerous beings. Yet the song's conclusion is unexpected and ironic. There is a bitterness to the fairytale narratives of the Trois chansons that belies their outward insouciance and leaves the listener bewildered and disturbed. Composed in the winter of 1914-15, the Trois chansons - 'Nicolette ', 'Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis' and 'Ronde' - were for Ravel as direct and personal a response to the First World War as that found in Claude Debussy's En blanc et noir.

As the cataclysmic chain reaction that followed the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand unfolded, Ravel was summering in St-Jean-deLuz. He remained in the Basque country until the autumn, watching from a distance the 'war fever', the opening sallies, the 'Miracle of the Marne' and the ensuing 'Race for the sea'. While he helped to care for wounded soldiers, Ravel was - and clearly felt himself to be - far from the vivid realities of war that were dominating Paris: troop-trains departing, anxious crowds awaiting newspaper bulletins and the tension and terror as the city itself came under threat. His major preoccupation was his repeated and unsuccessful attempts to join up: his age (39), small stature and physical frailty all counted against him. Meeting refusal after refusal from the military, he quickly became frustrated and depressed. His letters are filled with his attempts to obtain papers and pass medical examinations, his conflicting sense of duty to family, work and country and the agony of his rejections.

By December Ravel had returned to a Paris thronged with Belgian refugees and aflame with tales of atrocities committed against civilians by the invading German soldiers. Many of the victims of these tales were children, and consequently the figure of the child - orphaned, homeless, mutilated, murdered - quickly became a symbol of the plight of the Belgian people. Ravel, who had all his life delighted in children and the world of childhood, must have been terribly distressed by these reports (of which he was certainly aware; he talked in later years of 'the Germans, who cut off the hands of little children, killed pregnant women and did so many other terrible things'2).

Amidst this national trauma came news of great personal grief for Ravel: the deaths of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin. The Gaudin family from Saint-Jeande-Luz were the cousins Ravel never had: he called them his famille basque, and they considered him 'equal to a fifth son'. …

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