The ornate, nocturnal sound-world of French composer Maurice Ravel has left its indelible stain across the arc of 20th century music, whether sowing the seeds for minimalism in 1928’s Bolero, or finally meeting up with dance culture in 1995 with the release of electronic instrumentalist William Orbit’s Pieces in a Modern Style. In his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest is Noise, the music journalist Alex Ross described the composer as “something of a cultural mutt” – a reference to the Basque folk music heritage of Ravel’s mother and the engineering background of his Swiss father. Dual identity inevitably appeared in his musical language, encompassing Ravel’s love of folk-song as well as his embracing of frozen harmonies and mechanized texture.
Admitted to study with Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel fell under the cathartic influence of the 1889 Exposition Universelle (an experience that had so profoundly inspired Debussy’s music), where he encountered gamelan, Spanish and Russian music. Much like Debussy, Ravel’s new sounds also bridged the maximalism of Romanticism and the modernism of the new century. His music discovered a novel sense of space, encapsulated in the resonance of tolling bells that fall through his 1905 suite for solo piano, Miroirs.
But the comic filth of Ravel’s 1911 opera L’heure espagnole – a tale of adultery and dirty old men hiding in grandfather clocks – explicitly rejected the heightened sexual emotion of Debussy’s escapist opera Pelléas. Ravel’s second opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, had its premiere in 1925 with a libretto by Colette, who later observed how little contact she had with the composer. As such L’enfant stands as a perfect example of Ravel’s singular imagination, with a keen eye for operatic clichés in its sequences involving a ragtime duet for teapot and china cup, a princess’ lament and a chorus delivered by wallpaper shepherds. From its dancing animals through to eccentric instrumentation (including a cheese grater), this opera is pure Alice in Wonderland territory.
In Part 1 a child refuses to do his homework and confined to his room he falls into a rage, attacks his tame squirrel and the cat, breaks the Grandfather Clock and tears up his books. But the room awakes and the mistreated objects find their voices. In Part 2 the child wanders into the garden where he faces further accusations from the plants and the animals, building to a commotion in which the squirrel is injured. The child bandages the wound and seeing this act of reconciliation, the animals sing of his kindness. The opera closes with the child singing “Maman”, perhaps evoking the similar cry of dying soldiers in Colette’s book La chambre éclairée.
L’enfant revels in melodic celebration, balletic focus and pastiche, whether it be an 18th century courtly dance for a couple of chairs, or a duet for cats (which caused a scandal in its Paris premiere). And yet with the narrative’s Freudian tones, the obsession with dance, and the gradual shift itself within the instrumentation from aggression towards a magical, shifting soundscape, L’enfant’s success lies in its ability to be more than a collection of sketches. Roger Nichols describes one Glyndebourne performance ending with “middle-aged men in evening dress and floods of tears”. The opera’s themes of maternal love and natural harmony make for so much more than escapist nostalgia, while all dressed up in Ravel’s jewelled night music.
Below is a recording of L’enfant, followed by a brief listening guide.
At 1:52 two oboes circle, seemingly without direction, in an introduction that prefaces the circularity and symmetry pervading the entirety of the opera. The audience immediately identifies with the child who enters at 3:12, characterized by a vocal line clearly pitched below the instrumentation. A whole sequence of pastiches follows as the objects of the boy’s rage respond, from the 18th century dance performed by two chairs at 6:27 through to the ragtime duet of the china cup and teapot at 9:40. The opera takes a melancholic turn at 18:45 with the appearance of a fairy-tale princess who is left without a future because the child has torn apart the story-book. The first concentrated emotional climax comes with the child’s lament for the departed princess, “Toi, le Coeur de la rose” (23:44) in a nod to French operatic tradition. Musical rupture continues with the arrival of Arithmetic (25:33) and his frantically dancing numbers. The opera’s garden scene opens in a halo of nocturnal sounds (30:10) and tranquil harmonic movement. But the tension increases as the child calls out for “Maman!” (40:29) and the garden’s inhabitants turn on the child. Amidst the chaos, the squirrel is injured. The opera reaches its crux as the child bandages the squirrel’s paw (41:30) in a meeting of reality and magic. The animals sing their hymn of praise (44:00) and the opera closes with the child greeting his mother.
The recording comes from the 1987 Glyndebourne production, but Lorin Maazel’s version with the RTF National Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon label comes highly recommended (as does his recording of L’Heure Espagnole).
To take a look at the signature Ravel has left on contemporary music, have a listen to Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s Recomposed project (also on Deutsche Grammophon).
Artwork: Glyndebourne set design, David Hockney
by En Liang Khong