The roles and realizations of childhood in Ravel’s music were inextricably linked with the language, traditions, and idioms of the literary fairytale—an idea that he himself supported when he wrote that his intention in his fairytale-based Ma mère l’Oye was to evoke “the poetry of childhood”.
Ravel deliberately aligned his music with the traditions of the fairytale through the creation and expressive manipulation of musical and dramatic structure, language, gesture, and perspective. One may trace the voice and presence of the storyteller in Ma mère l’Oye, a work dedicated to two children for whom Ravel was a favorite companion and teller of fairytales.
This according to The language of enchantment: Childhood and fairytale in the music of Maurice Ravel by Emily Alison Kilpatrick, a dissertation accepted by Elder Conservatorium of Music at The University of Adelaide in 2008.
Today is Ravel’s 140th birthday! Above, the composer with his cat Mouni; below, Edward Gardner directs the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in Ma mère l’Oye.
Bach’s use of a musical motive based on his name, B–A–C–H, is well known, and several other composers have used it in tributes to the Baroque master. As connoisseurs of French chamber music also know, Ravel made similar use of the technique of deriving musical material from a composer’s name in his Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure and Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn.
Far less known is the further use of this technique by both Debussy and Ravel in more enigmatically titled pieces. For example, several of their works bearing the words hommage or tombeau include musical material derived from the honoree’s name. Such formerly puzzling titles, which have led the curious on wild-goose chases in their attempts to understand what on earth the music had to do with the named composer, may now be understood as sly references to uses of this technique.
This according to “Widmungsstücke mit Buchstaben-Motto bei Debussy und Ravel” by Paul Mies, an essay included in Festschrift für Erich Schenk (Studien zur Musikwissenschaft: Beihefte der Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, vol. 25 , pp. 363–368); this journal issue dedicated to the Austrian musicologist Erich Schenk (1902–74) on the occasion of his 60th birthday is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Below, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, one of the works discussed in the article.