‘Pictures & Fairy Tales’ Program Notes
Maurice Ravel – Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite
Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty — “Florine falls asleep. The old woman now stands erect, throws off her filthy cape and appears in the sumptuous clothing and charming features of the Good Fairy. Two servants appear. The fairy entrusts them with guarding Florine and granting her pleasant dreams.” This very brief movement is nearly perfect in its simplicity.
Little Tom Thumb — “He thought he would be able to find the path easily by means of the bread he had strewn wherever he had walked. But he was quite surprised when he was unable to find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten them all. (The birds appear as three solo violins, a piccolo, and flute.)
Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas — “The Empress undressed and got into the bath. Immediately the toy mandarins and mandarinesses began to sing and to play instruments. Some had tiny lutes made from walnut shells; some had viols made from almond shells; for the instruments had to be of a size appropriate to their own.” (Ravel makes telling use of the pentatonic scale, jangling rhythms, and bell-like tones to suggest the sound of Chinese music.)
Conversations Between the Beauty and the Beast — “Beast: ‘Beauty, would you like to be my wife?’ Beauty: ‘No, Beast!’ Beast: ‘I die happy because I have the pleasure of seeing you once again.’ Beauty: ‘No, my dear Beast. You shall not die. You shall live to become my husband.’ Suddenly, the Beast disappeared and Beauty beheld at her feet a handsome prince, who thanked her for having lifted his spell.” (Following the slow waltz of the Beauty’s opening music, the Beast enters with a basso-profundo announcement from that deepest member of the wind section, the contrabassoon. In less artful hands, the use of a contrabassoon might have sounded comical and blustery. Ravel creates a poignant effect by marking the solo piano.)
The Enchanted Garden — “Dawn. Birds are singing. Prince Charming enters, led by a cupid. He notices the sleeping Princess. She awakens at the same time that day is breaking. The Good Fairy appears and blesses the couple.” (With her blessing, the orchestra plays a joyful fanfare.)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart –Clarinet Concerto in A major
Although the idea of a serious concerto for clarinet no doubt surprised many of his audience, since the instrument was considered a mere novelty, it’s perhaps not surprising that Mozart became enthralled by the clarinet and its lower-pitched relative, the basset horn. During his lifetime, Mozart was considered one of the finest pianists of his day. He was also an accomplished string player. Although he played violin (and even served as a court violinist in Salzburg), he preferred playing the viola. In general, it seems, Mozart was strongly attracted to mid-range instruments such as the viola — and the clarinet — perhaps because of their vocal-like qualities. As it happens, he was also close friends with one of the early masters of the clarinet, Anton Stadler. Mozart wrote several pieces, including the Clarinet Concerto, for Stadler, who belonged to the same Masonic lodge as Mozart. The concerto was premiered by Stadler in Prague October 16, 1791.
By turns thrilling, poignant, and spirited, the Clarinet Concerto is remarkable for its intimate feel. Unlike many of Mozart’s piano concertos, it does not make use of timpani or trumpets. To highlight the timbre of the clarinet, the composer also eliminates oboes, creating a chamber-like piece that often sounds like an intimate conversation between the clarinet and orchestra. The first movement, for instance, includes a passage in which the clarinet accompanies the orchestra with a bass line, a simple broken-triad figure that reverses the usual role of soloist and orchestra. The second movement includes gorgeous melodies that rival some of Mozart’s greatest arias.
Modest Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel)
Although the piano version of “Pictures” is still a favorite showcase of pianistic virtuosity, the piece is best known in its symphonic version, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922. Ravel was not the first composer to orchestrate “Pictures,” and his version inspired many other transcriptions of the work. But Ravel’s orchestration remains a model of technical brilliance, inventivenness, and sensitivity for the original composition. Ravel employs an unusually wide palette of orchestral colors, including solos for saxophone (in The Old Castle) and tuba (in Cattle).
The Promenade that opens the work describes wandering through the exhibition. Each of the ten subsequent movements describes a specific painting or object. The Gnome, for example, depicts a child’s toy designed by Hartmann, a nutcracker in the form of a gnome. Mussorgsky’s jotted notes from imagined conversations in the margin of his manuscript charmingly describe the inspiration for The Marketplace at Limoges (Great News) — “M. de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow. . . . Mme. de Remboursac has just acquired a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Pantaleon’s nose, which is in his way, is as much as ever the color of a peony.” The following movement, Catacombs, was inspired by a picture of an interior of a Parisian catacomb, depicting Hartmann, a friend, and a guide with a lamp. Its music echoes in a ghostly way the opening Promenade. The magisterial conclusion, The Great Gate of Kiev, was inspired by Hartmann’s design for a series of stone gates to commemorate the escape of tsar Alexander II from assassination.
In addition to “Pictures,” Mussorgsky is best known for Boris Godunov, a staple of the opera repertoire, and Night on Bald Mountain, which became a worldwide classic when it was featured in Disney’s Fantasia.
Program notes by Peter Jaret.