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ClassicsOnline Home » RAVEL, M: Enfant et les sortileges (L') [Opera] / Sheherazade (Boulianne, Nashville Symphony, Willis)
Setting a charming text by Colette, Ravel’s richly-scored opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) is a lyric fantasy whose cast includes fairy tale characters, crockery, plants and little animals which come to life to chastise the child who has been tormenting them. However, all ends happily when the child learns compassion. Ravel’s life-long fascination with the exotic orient found inspiration in three poems by Tristan Klingsor, brought together in his ravishing and enduringly popular song cycle Shéhérazade.
By Steve Schwartz
By Gregory Keane
By David Denton
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
L’Enfant et les sortilèges • Shéhérazade
L’Enfant (The Child) - Julie Boulianne, Mezzo-soprano
Maman, La Libellule, L’Ecureuil (Mother, The Dragonfly,
The Squirrel) - Geneviève Després, Mezzo-soprano
La Tasse chinoise, Un Pâtre, La Chatte (The Chinese Cup, A Shepherd,
The White Cat) - Kirsten Gunlogson, Mezzo-soprano
La Théière, Le Petit Vieillard, La Rainette (The Teapot, The Little Old Man
(Arithmetic Man), The Tree Frog) - Philippe Castagner, Tenor
L’Horloge comtoise, Le Chat (The Grandfather Clock,
The Black Cat) - Ian Greenlaw, Baritone
Le Fauteuil, Un Arbre (The Armchair, A Tree) - Kevin Short, Bass-baritone
La Princesse, La Chauve-souris (The Princess, The Bat) - Agathe Martel, Soprano
Le Feu, Le Rossignol (The Fire, The Nightingale) - Cassandre Prévost, Soprano
La Bergère, Une Pastourelle, La Chouette (The Louis XV Chair,
A Shepherd Girl, The Screech Owl) - Julie Cox, Soprano
Le Banc (The Settle), Le Canapé (The Sofa), Le Pouf (The Pouf), La Chaise de
paille, (The Wicker Chair), Les Chiffres (The Figures) - Children’s Chorus
Les Pastoures (The Shepherdesses), Les Pâtres (The Shepherds), Les Rainettes
(The Tree Frogs), Les Bêtes (The Animals), Les Arbres (The Trees) - Chorus
From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision and, incidentally, in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in 1875 in the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France, he spent his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying the piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. In 1895 he left the Conservatoire, after failing to win the prizes necessary for promotion, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the important Prix de Rome, even when well enough established as a composer, disqualified at his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in the Conservatoire, of which Fauré became director.
Ravel’s career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the body of French song and, with commissions from Dyagilev, to ballet. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time or will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of his choreographic poem La valse, rejected by Dyagilev and the cause of a rupture in their relations. He undertook a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works, in France and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.
It was towards the end of the war that the newly appointed director of the Opéra, Jacques Rouché, suggested to Colette that she should write the scenario for a fantasy-ballet. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette had made her name in the early years of the century with her Claudine novels, written with her first husband, Willy (the critic Henri Gauthier-Villars). She completed the new task unusually quickly, but the composer chosen to provide the music, Ravel, took very much longer to provide the score of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, which was completed only in time for its first performance in March 1925, not at the Paris Opéra, but in Monte Carlo. Ravel’s only other completed opera, L’Heure espagnole, had been given its première in Paris in 1911, but earlier stage works, Olympia, after Hoffmann, and La Cloche engloutie, after Gerhart Hauptmann’s Der versunkene Glock, had remained unfinished and other operas merely projected. Ravel had, of course, experience of the theatre through his works for the ballet. Colette’s libretto, however, offered something particularly apt, allowing the composer an extensive display of varied scenes in a world of enchantment that he had explored before in Ma Mère l’oye and that had much in common with his 1906 setting of Jules Renard’s Histoires naturelles.
The score of L’Enfant et les sortilèges calls for a wide array of instruments. Wind instruments are represented by a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet and two clarinets, bassoon and double bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. In addition to the usual strings there is a particularly extensive and colourful list of percussion instruments, timpani, small drum tuned to D, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, whip, ratchet, cheese-grater (played with a triangle beater), wood-block, éoliphone (wind-machine), crotales (small cymbals), piston flute, xylophone, celesta, harp, and luthéal, the last a device attached to the piano that gives the effect of a Hungarian cimbalom (instead of which a piano with paper inserted over the strings could be used). The list of instruments is characteristic of the composer, a master of orchestration, as is their use, which is always meticulous and discriminating, the whole instrumentarium contributing to the magic world evoked.
In L’Enfant et les sortilèges Ravel captures the world of the child, at first rebellious and fractious, causing every kind of mischief until the creatures, animate and inanimate, that he has provoked turn against him. In the second scene, in the garden, trees and animals complain of their treatment, victims in one way or another, of the child’s behaviour. The child calls out again for his mother, as the animals take on an air of menace, mollified when the boy helps to bind the wound of a little squirrel and calling out ‘Maman’, a name that seems to bring comfort, as they lead him back to the window and the house. The libretto provides opportunities for witty variety in the depiction of the various actors in the story, the solemn dance of the armchair, the complaints of the damaged grandfather clock, the belligerence of the English Wedgwood teapot and more refined orientalism of the Chinese teacup, the fairy-book princess, the pages torn from the end of the tale, the tormenting old man, the personification of Arithmetic, and the cats’ love duet. The magic and menace of the garden turns from parody to moonlight enchantment, and to the final consoling madrigal that brings comfort to a child that has now learnt his lesson.
The short cycle Shéhérazade, settings of three poems from the collection of that name by Ravel’s friend Tristan Klingsor, was written in 1903, the year in which Klingsor (Justin Léon Leclère) published his collection of poems under the same title, suggested by the work of Rimsky-Korsakov and its own literary source, The Arabian Nights, a new French translation of which, by Joseph Charles Mardrus, was nearing completion. The longest of the songs, Asie, was dedicated to the singer Jeanne Hatto (Marguerite Jeanne Frère), for whose benefit he had Klingsor change the word ‘pipe’ to ‘tasse’ towards the end of the poem at the line En elevant comme Sindbad ma vieille tasse arabe. The poem is full of sensuous pseudo-oriental imagery, to which the music fully responds, Damascus and cities of Persia, minarets reaching up in the air, silk turbans on black faces, merchants, cadis and viziers, the executioner with his curved scimitar, people dying of love and of hate, all in a symbolist never-never-land. The second song, La Flûte enchantée, was dedicated to the society hostess Mme René de Saint-Marceaux, at whose salon Colette had first met Ravel. Here the singer, while her white-bearded master sleeps, hears her lover’s flute with music of sadness and of joy, each note like a mysterious kiss on her cheek, as she stands by the casement. L’Indifférent was dedicated to Emma Bardac, at the time still married to the banker Sigismond Bardac and later to marry Debussy. The singer sees a handsome young man, his lips, at her doorstep, singing a strange and charming language; she bids him enter but he walks languidly away, with a graceful gesture, his departure reflected in the brief, dying postlude.
L’Enfant et les sortilèges
 Two oboes are heard, with the harmonics of a solo double bass, as the scene is revealed, a low-ceilinged room in an old stone-built Normandy house, giving onto a garden. There are big armchairs with covers, a tall grandfather clock in a decorated case, and wall-paper with country scenes. A cage with a squirrel hangs near the window. The remains of the fire are seen in the great fireplace, with a kettle simmering. There is a cat too. It is afternoon and the Child, six or seven years old, is sitting at his homework. He is feeling very lazy, bites his pen, scratches his head, and complains that he does not want to do his schoolwork; he wants to go out, to eat all the cakes, to pull the cat’s tail and cut off the squirrel’s. He wants to scold everyone and upset his mother.
 The door opens and Maman enters, although we only see the lower part of her, her size and that of all the objects on the stage making the Child seem very small. She asks if he has finished but sulkily he gives no reply and slips off his chair. She sees that the Child has done nothing and asks him to promise to work. In reply the Child sticks out his tongue and Maman leaves for him a naughty boy’s tea, tea without sugar and dry bread; he must stay there until dinner-time and think of what he has done wrong and how he has hurt his mother. The door opens and she goes.
 Left alone, the Child stamps his feet and shouts that he doesn’t care; he is not hungry and would rather be alone. He doesn’t care for anybody and is very naughty. He knocks over the teapot and teacup, which shatter into a thousand pieces, then climbs up to the window, opens the squirrel’s cage and pricks the little creature with his pen. The squirrel squeals out and escapes through the window. The Child jumps down and pulls the tail of the cat, which spits at him and takes refuge under an armchair, to his delight. He brandishes the poker, pokes the fire and knocks over the kettle, scattering cinders and smoke. Using the poker as a sword he attacks the wall-paper, tearing the little figures down, so that the paper hangs in strips from the wall. Then he turns to the grandfather clock, which he opens, hanging onto the pendulum, which comes away in his hands. Roaring with laughter he takes his exercise books from the table and tears them in pieces; now no more lessons; he is free, naughty and free.
 Intoxicated by his destructive activities and exhausted, the Child collapses into an big armchair, with its flowered cover. To his surprise, however, the arms open, the seat moves away and the armchair, like some giant toad, stumbles heavily off. It takes three paces back and then comes forward, its progress accompanied by a double bassoon, greeting a little Louis XV chair, with whom it embarks on a grotesque dance. The chairs converse, as they move, glad to be rid of the Child, no more cushions for him as he sleeps, but only the bare ground, and then, who knows? The settle, sofa, pouf and wicker chair join in, all equally glad to be rid of him, while the Child listens and looks on, leaning back against the wall.
 The grandfather clock joins in, unable to control his striking, suffering the loss of his pendulum. He steps out of his case, revealing a pink round little face and two waving arms. The clock is ashamed of the state he is now in, unable to mark the passing hours, and moves across the room to stand motionless, facing the wall.
 Two nasal voices are heard from the floor, as the Wedgwood teapot addresses the Chinese cup, with fragments of English for the teapot, 7 and of fake Chinese for the cup, as they dance away to the foxtrot.
 In astonishment the Child sees them go, sad that the cup and teapot are broken.
 The sun has set and the Child, alone and afraid, goes to the fire, which spits in his face and leaps out of the fireplace, a dazzling figure, declaring that he warms the good and burns the bad; the Child has behaved like a little savage, with the poker, knocking over the kettle and scattering the matches; he must beware of the dancing fire, melting like a snowflake on his scarlet tongue. He chases after the Child, who hides behind the furniture. Cinders follow behind the fire, at first unobserved, and then playing together until the fire is finally quenched, after a last burst of flame. Now the room is dark and dusk has come; stars are seen through the window and the full moon starts to shine. The Child is afraid.
 To the sound of laughter a procession of little figures from the painted wall-paper comes forward, shepherds and shepherdesses, sheep, dog and goat, to the sound of pipes and tabor. The shepherds will no longer graze their flocks on the pasture, bidding one another farewell and lamenting their fate, torn apart by the naughty Child who owes his first smile to them and whose blue dog guarded his cradle; now no more pink and green sheep, amaranth goats. To the sound of the pipes they go.
 The Child lies flat on the floor, his face down, crying and lying on the leaves of the book he has torn, a page of which rises up, revealing a fairy-tale Princess, to the boy’s amazement. To the sound of the flute, the Princess tells him she is the one he called on in his dreams last night and who kept him awake so long, the one he sought in the heart of the rose and the scent of the lily, his beloved, but now he has torn the book, what will become of her? Her fate must remain unknown; surely the Child must be sorry that he will never know what happens to his first beloved. The Child calls on her not to go and to tell him of the tree where the blue bird sang, but she points to the torn branches and fruit of the tree; he asks about her magic necklace and the knight with his sword; if he had a sword, he would defend her. The Princess tells him he can do nothing, but had the dream continued he might have come to her rescue, but now she will be lost in sleep and night; calling for help, she disappears.  She has left him, and he searches in vain among the pages for the end of the story, but finds nothing but boring lessons.
 Piercing little voices are heard from among the pages and malicious and grimacing little numbers appear and a little old man, crooked and bearded, dressed in numbers, with π on his head, a tape-measure round his waist and armed with a set-square. He advances with little dancing steps, reciting scraps of problems, two taps pouring into a tank, two trains leaving a station at twenty minute intervals, a woman taking all her eggs to market, a haberdasher selling six metres of material. Seeing the Child, he advances menacingly towards him, recognised as Arithmetic in person, as he dances round him, proposing more nonsensical sums and embarking on the metric table. The numbers dance round the Child and the little old man continues to pose problems,  until the Child falls to the ground, exhausted, as Arithmetic and the Numbers go, occasionally reappearing.
 The Child sits up. The moon now lights up the room. The Black Cat emerges slowly from under the armchair, stretches, yawns and starts to wash itself. At first the Child does not see it and rests his head on a foot cushion. The Cat plays with a ball of wool and then approaches the Child, wanting to play with his head. The Child sees the Cat, now so big and threatening. The White Cat appears in the garden and the two sing to each other, before the Tom Cat joins his partner in the garden, followed by the Child, as the walls of the room disappear and they are outside, in the moonlight.
 There are trees, flowers, a little green pond and the trunk of a great tree, covered in ivy. The music of insects, tree-frogs, toads, the cries of owls, the murmur of the breeze and the song of the nightingale are heard.
 The Child is happy to see the garden, but is reproached by a tree that he has wounded, still bleeding sap. Other trees join in. The Child, in pity, rests his cheek against the bark of the great tree.  A dragonfly flies by and comes back, followed by others, with hawkmoths, and dragonfly and hawkmoth dance together as the former seeks her mate, pinned to the wall of the Child’s room. The nightingale sings, and a chorus of frogs starts up, to the Child’s bewilderment and dismay.  The bat too seeks his companion, killed by the Child, his little ones now motherless.  A little tree-frog emerges from the pond, followed by another and another, until the pond seems full. They come onto the land and dance.  One leans his hand on the Child’s knee, but is warned by a squirrel, perched on a branch, not to be so foolish and to remember the cage and the sharp pricks between the bars; the squirrel escaped, but a frog would not be so lucky, although it claims it could leap away.  The Child tries to excuse his behaviour; he had kept the squirrel in a cage so that he could see its little paws and fine eyes. The squirrel sarcastically rejects this plea; his eyes reflected his love of freedom. Other squirrels appear, tree-frogs, dragonfly, hawkmoth and other creatures fill the garden, dancing a slow waltz in a paradise of tenderness and animal joy. The Child sees that they love each other and are happy; the two Cats appear, the Tom Cat licking the ears of the other, and the Child sees that they ignore him and are happy, while he is alone. He calls for his Mother.
 At this the animals prick up their ears. Some run away, and others move together threateningly against the Child, their cries mingling with those of the trees, as they recognise the Child with the knife, with the stick, with the cage, the naughty Child that nobody loves and who must be punished, with their claws and teeth. Together they fall upon the Child, pushing and pulling him, eager to punish him and forcing him into a corner. Suddenly a little squirrel, injured in the struggle, goes up to the Child, crying out in pain. The animals draw back, ashamed at what they have done. The Child, however, takes a ribbon and bandages the little squirrel’s paw.  The animals fall silent and then comment in wonder at the Child’s action, remembering that just now he had cried out ‘Maman’. They gather round the Child, as he lies there, the squirrels above him in the trees and the dragonflies fanning him with their wings and wondering if he will die. They do not know how to make him better, until they remember his cry of ‘Maman’, as they carry him towards the house. The Child opens his eyes and tries to stand up, helped by the animals, who continue to cry out ‘Maman’.  A light appears in the house and the animals understand that the Child is good; he bandaged the little squirrel’s paw. They gradually withdraw their aid, eventually leaving the Child alone, stretching out his arms to the one he had called ‘Maman’.
Synopsis based largely on the libretto by Colette
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RAVEL, M: Enfant et les sortileges (L') [Opera] / ...