06 Nov 2015

Ravel – The Child and the Enchantments

Maurice Ravel (1875 — 1937): L’enfant et les sortilèges

Instrumentation: : 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, harpsichord, celeste; strings

Performance time: 44 minutes


L’enfant et les sortilèges is Maurice Ravel’s second opera. Like its predecessor, L’Heure espagnole, it is a work of exquisite subtlety — piquant, funny and poignant. From the long time that elapsed between the commission and its completion, one might have expected something weighty and difficult was being composed; the scenario was originally sent to Ravel in 1916, while he was serving in World War I, but he did not see it until 1917, and did not finish the score until 1925. Yet its musical style is fleet and delicate. Ravel described it as being in the manner of an American musical comedy, and the story shows every evidence of being intended for children.

But sometimes that phrase “for children” can be deceptive. Is anything more grown-up than Mozart’s fairy-tale opera The Magic Flute, with its enchantments and dancing animals? And what about Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are?

This is a children’s book about a quintessential boy’s boy, the kind of scamp whose behavior we all know. Many of us were that child not so long ago, but we may have forgotten until Sendak reminds us that terror and violence live next to adventure in the childhood imagination. To this list we must add Ravel’s own 1912 ballet Ma mère l’Oye, which we know as the Mother Goose Suite, based on movements of piano music “for children” — though pianists as well as music critics describe this music as adult in the extreme.

As with these other works, L’enfant et les sortilèges has meanings that go far deeper than its surface enchantments; in fact, it can be said to be an allegory about World War I, the conflict that unleashed unprecedented violence upon Europe. Even those who saw war coming were unprepared for the scale of its horrors, which descended on the continent like a collective trauma at a time when human psychology was just beginning to emerge as a science.

What to Listen For

For the libretto of L’enfant et les sortilèges, the Paris Opera turned to one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century, Colette, whom we know in the U.S. for her incomparable novels and stories, one of which became the basis for the Academy Award-winning film Gigi. Colette had made her reputation with sophisticated narratives charged with eroticism, both veiled and overt. Then came a series of novels about a young schoolgirl named Claudine; these, too, made a sensation, not least for the suggestive nature of Claudine’s relations with her girlfriends and headmistress. So when Jacques Rouche of the Paris Opera approached Colette for a scenario of a “fantasy ballet” about a child, a traditional children’s story was the last thing he had in mind. The year was 1915, and despite World War I, the avant garde was flourishing. Rouche wanted to offer his public a work that would tantalize and astonish.

In performance, L’enfant et les sortilèges immerses us in a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (or, actually, vice-versa): Wayward and willful, a child refuses to do his homework, and his maman — we see her from his point of view, just a giant skirt with keys and scissors hanging from her belt — scolds him. Soon we realize that everyone and everything in the little boy’s world has been hurt by his misbehavior: his toys, the household pets, the princess in his storybook, the shepherds and shepherdesses that adorn the wallpaper, and even the plants and animals in the garden. When we have lost patience with the child’s destructive impertinence, suddenly the music and the story make us see the pain and isolation that overwhelm him as the toys and animals of his world suddenly turn away. “They love each other,” he says. “They have forgotten me. I am alone.” When he finally notices an injured squirrel and binds its wounded paw, the enchanted beings that surround him recognize the goodness within, and struggle to call for help on his behalf: “Mama…Mama…” As the opera ends, a light appears at the windows.

By the time Ravel completed the music for L’enfant et les sortilèges, Colette, like Ravel, had been transformed by World War I. She had run a hospital for wounded soldiers and been awarded the légion d’honneur. In her scenario and in Ravel’s music we recognize the unbearable loss and pain that seemed to reduce a whole world to helpless suffering. In a remarkable paper written for the British Psychoanalytical Society, the early psychoanalyst Melanie Klein correctly discerns universal yearning in that final cry for “Mama”.  Together, Ravel and Colette have captured how the agony of war reduces us to children, and how the innocence of childhood gives us hope.