Ravel’s Operas: Parody and Pastiche

After watching the wonderful Glyndebourne Ravel Double Bill, streamed live on the internet, I remembered that as an undergraduate I had written an essay exploring the same two operas. I’ve included the essay below – it is strange reading something from nine years ago and spotting all the errors… but I will leave it intact. All the musical examples are missing and perhaps if I felt inclined to rewrite this – as I think I might teach a class on these two operas – I could find the examples and add them to the text.

The Role of Parody and Pastiche in Ravel’s Operas

  [Ravel] has his place marked out in the history of music theatre in our time, not by the number of his works or by the scale of their proportions: their interest suffices.[1]

Ravel produced several incomplete theatre projects throughout his career, and was only to complete two of them. L’Heure espagnole, ‘The Spanish Hour’ (1907, orchestrated 1910) was given its first performance in 1911 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. A comédie-musicale composed to the play by Franc-Nohain (which had been successfully presented in 1904) at great speed. The Spanish nature of the text fitted well with Ravel’s Spanish ‘roots’, and close friendships with Spanish musicians such as Vines and Albeniz. Such ‘roots’ were important to Ravel, and the plagiarism of his Hispanic music by Debussy (the Habanera) was a furore. Such events led to Ravel searching for an outlet in opera that could be distinguished from Pelléas et Mellisande: ‘Debussy never wrote a comic opera and Ravel never wrote an entirely serious one’[2]. The action takes place in Torquemada’s clock shop, in 18th century Toledo. Torquemada, reminded by his wife Concepcion, goes off for his weekly hour to wind all the municipal clocks while Concepcion can use the ‘hour’ to meet her male friends. This is disturbed however by Ramiro, the muleteer, who wants ‘his turn’. Concepcion gets rid of him by asking him to move a clock, so she can see her other friends. Gonzalve, the student, and the banker Inigo also turn up, leading to comic consequences: they end up hiding inside grandfather clocks. Torquemada eventually returns to discover the three, and the opera ends with a quintet and the final line, ‘in the pursuit of love there comes a moment when the muleteer has his turn’.

‘With few exceptions the critics praised [the fantasie-lyrique] L’Enfant et les sortileges (1925) more warmly than they had any work of his since Le tombeau de Couperin[3] and Richard Langham Smith agrees calling it his best work[4] Fundamentally, Colette’s text explores the child’s ‘transformation [from] a protagonist from one state to another’; from méchant to sage (naughty to good), and with it gaining an awareness and sensitivity to others (the animals). Such a transformation is also explored in ‘Placet futile’ from Trois poémes de Stephane Mallarme (1913; for voice and chamber ensemble). The transformation happens after the child’s refusal to complete his ‘lessons’ leads to his mother’s scolding remarks. What follows is a huge outburst of destruction, where numerous objects in his room suffer by his hand: his cat, caged squirrel, wallpaper, kettle, grandfather clock and chairs. These all come to life in turn and show the child the consequences of his actions in a wide spectrum of pastiche and parody ranging from the 18th century to jazz. Split in two parts, the second part deals with the child’s transformation and is not a series of numbers as is the first part. We know the child has repented, with his calling of ‘Maman’. Colette was enthusiastic at the prospect of Ravel setting her text; the composer of Histoires naturelles was a master of orchestration and evocation, and his portrayal of animals matched the heightened interest Colette had for them herself.

Ravel’s operas were not filling any void in the genre, and his contemporaries were producing work as equally varied as the numbers within L’Enfant. Debussy’s quasi-Wagner masterpiece was the backdrop to Ravel’s works. Audiences around the time were seeing Satie’s Parade and had to wait for an opera-bouffe (a fantasy in the same thread as that of L’Enfant), Poulenc’s Les mamelles de tiresias that was not premiered until 1944. The humour of the three operas binds them in their purpose, and is considered among the wittiest ever composed. It is interesting to note all three were composed in later life of the respective composers, yet are concerned with humour and youth.

Ravel’s predecessors play an important part in his music, and ‘in many respects Ravel remained thoroughly attached to tradition’[5], accepting ‘influence as inevitable and necessary’[6]. This tradition ranged from his immediate precursors such as Faure and Gounod to the ‘Golden Age’ of French music with Couperin and Lully. His ‘attachment’ to 19th century French music did not preclude a wider interest encompassing music by composers such as Mozart, Chabrier and Liszt.

Ravel himself conducted ‘many imaginative excursions into the past’[7], beginning early on with the Menuet Anitique 1895 and leading to Le tombeau de Couperin 1914 – 17. Generally Ravel relies on evoking an ‘imagined’ past through the use of bare fifths and octaves, but at all times these are coloured by his unique compositional style involving seconds, sevenths and modality: He was ‘viewing his classical subject from a 20th century vantage point’.[8] 18th century France was the inspiration for Daphnis et chloe (1909 – 12), and similarly looking to 18th Madagascan poetry for Chanson Madecasses (1926). The Piano Concerto in G (1929 – 31) is a fine example of a fusion, or even ‘juxtaposition’ of the past and present: Mozart and Saint-Saens are clashed in a similar manner to Ravel’s bitonality (in later works) with Jazz elements. The outer movements of the concerto show jazz tendencies, while they are both contrasted with the ‘classical’ inclinations of the slow movement.

Though this reference to past styles is an important stylistic characteristic of Ravel’s music, it is not indigenous to it; we find his contemporaries exploring such a heritage. From the turn of the century most French composers, looking for an escape from the ‘Wagnerian’ impasse, undertook a rediscovery of pre-Romantic styles. Debussy played homage to such a past with works such as Pour le piano, and Poulenc was later to cultivate a musical language owing much to a less recent past. A fundamental connection to the past is the maintaining of classical forms and titles.

The 18th century setting of L’Heure comes across from the orchestral introduction. The ‘black legend’ accounts for its darkness; a series of parallel chords that are dissonant with a bass; some decorated with trills and the colouring of mutes and sul tasto strings. This creates an ‘unstable, frivolous and wholly reminiscent’ atmosphere’. One can clearly see a significant textural change from this opening to that of L’enfant; ‘Ravels interest in … economy … increased after the war … demonstrating his receptivity to new musical developments.’[9] From the opening of L’Enfant one is subjected to a nostalgic sound world, evoking a past through the use of two oboes playing in fourths and fifths; this ‘opens the nursery to our eyes’ in an economical way[10]. The sheer transparency of texture reminds us of organum, and perhaps the repetitive nature was inspired by the depiction of a young boy doing his ‘lessons’ at his desk. The addition of a double bass playing harmonics in the treble clef is a technique far removed from traditional orchestration, yet its use here emphasises the simplicity and uncomplicated nature of the past and the child’s attempt at study.

Example 1 L’Enfant et les Sortileges (7 bars before figure 7 and entrance of child)

The pair of oboes become a quasi-leitmotif, representing the child whether he speaks or not. It is interesting to note they are only used at the beginning and end of the opera and when ‘maman’ is about to appear. The fact she appears soon after the opening leaves us with the hope she will at the end. Such formal unity reminds us of the rigorous structuring of music associated with Classicism, and of Ravel as a ‘fastidious neoclassical [craftsman]’[11] Leitmotif plays a greater role in L’heure, where the majority of the characters are distinguished musically, and their ‘musical characteristics’ are recognisable throughout the action. While the character Concepcion has no distinguishing musical features singing in a recitative style throughout, the ‘robust muluteer’ is represented by a brief melody (example below). Gonzalve sings ‘absurd rhapsodical poetry’ which offsets the dotted nature of Don Inigo Gomez’s music.

Example 2 L’Heure 11/2

 L’Enfant, which is more of a number opera, does not use leitmotifs in this way. Ravel still uses the music to evoke characters.The authority of ‘maman’ is created in a similar manner J. S. Bach did for Jesus in St. Matthew’s Passion, by a sonorous harmonic texture accompanying her quasi-recitative passages. Whether Ravel intended such an association is difficult to prove, but the similarity is striking. Both are authority figures, and as such require distinction from the other characters. The fact Ravel uses the accompaniment in a texture (and register) not unlike Bach’s (though using a greater variety of instrumentation) creates a ‘halo’[12] around the over-sized[13] ‘maman’ as the strings did for Jesus in the passion. Richard Langham Smith has also identified this characteristic:

The parental music, though studded with grace notes, is essentially Bachian: the counterpoint over the relentless bass is without conflict, using an antique form to convey age, authority and unflinching parental unity.[14]

Use of earlier forms for the depiction of authority is not uncommon in music of the period. The use of a fugal texture to represent the guards in Bizet’s Carmen is another example.

Example 3.1        St. Matthew’s Passion, J. S. Bach (recitative preceding chorale ‘Ich will hier bei dir


Example 3.2        L’Enfant (2nd to 4th bar of figure 4)

With the opening Ravel is intending to create an imagined past, yet the representation of the mother appears to be a direct link with an actual past. A similar link occurs later in the opera with the child’s aria, Toi, le Coeur de la rose. Here Ravel can be seen to refer to the aria Adieu, notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon (1882-3, revised 1884). Ravel’s pastiche of such an aria is warranted since both deal with loss, and it is notable that in both instances it is loss of an inanimate object (as strictly, the Princess from L’Enfant is from a book and it is only because of the nature of the opera that she manifests herself physically). It is left to consider whether such an association is intended, or merely that Ravel accepted the effectiveness of Massenet’s approach and successfully adapted it.

Example 4.1 Massenet Manon, Adieu notre petite table (need exact ref).

Example 4.2 L’Enfant figure 73.

We are further enlightened by a ‘pastoral’ past with the musette sung by the Shepherds and Shepherdesses, singing of their loss because of the destruction of the wallpaper that they decorate. The pastoral ‘tradition’ goes back even before Beethoven’s sixth symphony, and Ravel maintains such a tradition: rhythmic ostinato and harmonic drone with ‘rustic’ woodwind. All features Stravinsky would later call upon in The Rake’s Progress (1947 – 51).

Example 5 L’Enfant figure 51

Ravel aptly chooses models from a musical past to reflect emotions that transcend time itself. The moment where the animals (in the second part) realise the child has repented and matured, gaining an awareness of others, they sing a passage that reminds us of a madrigal. The contrapuntal nature of the writing further endorses such an interpretation. The texture appears fugal, though this formula is continued for a short time. Perhaps this is another case where the sheer number of animals required an authoritative passage (as the guards in Carmen).

Example 6 L’Enfant (four bars before figure 151, and two bars after it)

Barbara L. Kelly writes that Ravel responded selectively to the innovations of his contemporaries ‘while always linking these developments to tradition’[15] as did Debussy. Ravel has carefully chosen models from the past to evoke atmospheres apt for truly reflecting the character of Colette’s text. Though the opera contains many ‘new’ elements, the ‘traditional’ does not appear out of context but on the contrary, works well in a work that is fundamentally a ‘pot pourri’ of styles. L’heure is not intended to be such a mixture yet Ravel evokes a similar past, that is consistently Spanish. Evoking a past was a necessary part of realising these texts effectively, so Ravel was not parodying any particular style, or producing a strict pastiche. This demonstrates that ‘Ravel was less concerned with remaking the past than responding to it.’[16]

Evocation of the past has strong links with exoticism, especially Orientalism. ‘As far as the exotic Orient was concerned, Ravel was fascinated by it but never managed to get there’[17] though the Paris Exhibition of 1889 made it unnecessary to leave France to experience music from such a place. Ravel would have seen the Javanese Gamelan orchestra and dancers from the East, instilling in him the evocative sound world that Debussy transferred to a Western context in Pagodes. Satie was another composer to be profoundly influenced by the sights and sounds at the 1889 Exhibition.

Colette’s libretto gave Ravel an obvious chance to evoke the Orient with the ‘china cup’ in L’Enfant. His accurate ‘pastiche’ of the Chinese language further adds to the Oriental sound, which is coloured by pentatonicism and the bell-like celesta playing in fourths and fifths. A less obvious (in terms of libretto) pastiche of the Orient exists at the opening the opera. The use of oboes, which is ‘to the Western ear, the Oriental colour par excellence.[18], playing in fourths and fifths, over a ‘shifting metrical grid’ demonstrates ‘that allusion to the East could be useful when he had no need of invoking the Orient precisely.’[19](See example 1) The unique sound of the double bass harmonics add to this Orient, with a timbre that could be evoking an Eastern string instrument: A sound he had previously used in L’Heure (see example below) The naivety of such music attaches well to the child, and perhaps fundamentally it is an example of Western supremacy over the East: possessing music of a ‘simpler’ nature that is less developed.

Example 8 L’Enfant 3 bars before figure 32

Example 9 L’Heure fourth bar of figure 73

Bizet pointed out, when acting as a juror at an Exhibition in London, that ‘true Chinese music is atrocious to our ears…’[20]. Ravel drew upon a ‘tradition’ of Orientalism that stems back to Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde, and the work of his contemporaries Debussy and Satie; The ‘Russian Five’ (whom Ravel heard at the 1889 Paris Exhibition) gave Ravel a wealth of material to produce the exotic. ‘Ravel’s Orient is both more fanciful, more imaginary and more private’[21], yet to the Western audience, it succeeds in its aim. An interest in other languages led Ravel to compose works such as Cinq melodies populaires greques (1904 – 6) and Deux melodies hebraiques (1910), and with the latter Ravel was accused of being Jewish (displaying his attention to language setting). This interest in foreign languages certainly inspired the ‘spoof’ Chinese, and indeed, Ravel uses his own version of English, which one author calls ‘Franglais’ for the black Wedgwood in the same opera. 

‘Had the libretto [of L’Enfant] called for something Spanish, Ravel’s happiness would perhaps have been complete.’[22] L’Heure is likely to have satisfied Ravel’s hunger for all that is Spanish, and the opera is full of such elements. But ‘Ravel’s was a Spain he had felt in an idealized way through his mother,’[23] and such a heritage was remembered with remarkable accuracy (helped by his close friendship with Ricardo Vines); Ravel was not to visit Spain until 1911, after which he had completed Rapsodie espagnole (1907 – 8) and L’Heure espagnole (1907 – 9). His friendship with these and others like Albeniz ‘had an impact on the succession of Spanish evocations that run through Ravel’s oeuvre from his own Habanera (1895)’[24]. Ravel’s technique ‘was one of metamorphosis’[25] yet producing accurate evocations.

‘The comedy by Franc-Nohain did not claim to do more than present a conventional Spain’[26] yet it was inspirational enough for Ravel to produce a Spain that was ripe with stereotypes and comic actions. ‘Ravel knew better than anyone that authenticity was far less important than imagination and technique when it came to a successful exotic representation.’[27]His representations were always ‘filtered … through rose-tinted opera glasses’[28]. Ravel produced something similar to the remarks Laloy gave to another Spanish work, Rapsodie espagnole:

‘The unity of style and the way it is adapted to his thinking are most remarkable… This is a very well- observed Spain, but observed by an eye which is mocking, and will gladly overdo or deform: the Spain of Cervantes or Goya, with more artificial lines, more distorted forms, and more fantastical caprices; a Spain tending a little towards the Japanese style, full of piquant details, winks, grimaces, and unexpected, almost impossible contortions, striking in their accent.’[29]

‘Many of the Spanish works … show a preference for the Phrygian mode of Andalusian flamenco music’[30] and this is evident in the vocal line; characteristically Spanish with its extended melismas, decorative flourishes and modal inflections. Laloy commenting that the vocal line ‘follows the accent of the words [imprinting] …on the melody inflections and alterations which deliberately deform it while pushing it slightly towards the baroque.’[31] Gonzalve’s entry displays these characteristics with an improvised character, fundamental to the flamenco. The D-sharp gives it its ‘modal inflection’. The use of upper and lower leading notes add to a convincing evocation, ensuring ‘an engagingly frivolous tone.’[32]

Example L’Heure 3 bars before figure 15

‘Rhythm plays a crucial role in the Spanish works, in short, repetitive and often syncopated patterns’[33] and this was to reach a peak in Bolero: the incessant rhythm builds through a giant crescendo, and the material remains fairly constant yet the instrumentation changes. Ravel ‘indulges freely in his penchant for Spanish rhythms and modally inflected passages’. ‘Of this … Spain, Ravel … gave it a different flavour by blending in the authentic rhythms of the habanera, the malaguena and the bolero, adding to that the accent of the melodies, imitating the vibrant sonority of guitars in the orchestra…’[34]

Example L’Heure 3 bars before figure 14

Example L’Heure 4 bars before figure 41

‘It is impossible to say that works of greater quality were produced by those who visited their exotic sources of inspiration … than by those who preferred to rely mainly on their imaginative powers.’[35] Ravel produced exotic works without leaving France, and would eventually get to the source of his music (with regards to his Hispanic evocations), visiting Madrid in 1924. It is important to remember that Ravel, like most composers evoking the exotic, had to create an exotic that suited the respectability of a Western audience, and history has shown how such an audience has difficulty relating to accurate ‘reproductions’ of music from non-Western cultures. ‘If Ravel, like Debussy, … left a trail of unfinished theatre projects across his career, it can be seen that even more of them were concerned with exoticism’[36] and this never led Ravel to seek out his sources directly.

‘Ravel has a lasting preoccupation with the dance which he considered significant not only from a structural point of view but also as an important source of rhythmic invention.’[37] Throughout his oeuvre, he paid homage to dance forms from the past and present, including non-Western forms. L’Heure makes use of the Habanera, bolero and malaguena. We see the use of the ‘Pantoum’ in the Piano Trio, which is of Malaysian origin.

The variety is expanded significantly in L’Enfant, and we are exposed to a foxtrot by a china cup, an ‘American waltz’, and a ragtime. As with all of the pastiches and parodies in L’Enfant, there is a child-like ‘grotesque’ aspect to the music: ‘In the Forlane [from le tombeau], the obliviousness with which a dance rhythm wears its harmonic distortion is a grotesque mark, and that recurs in other works such as the duet for furniture from L’Enfant et les sortileges[38] (We can see a similar effect in the waltz we hear in the garden). This is an early sign of the hybrid jazz Ravel was incorporating into his style, which was to be of greater stylistic inspiration for the Piano Concerto in G. The ‘use of Jazz in his Sonata for Violin and Piano predates his American tour’[39], but this is ‘stylised Jazz, more French than American in character.’[40]

Example L’Enfant Figure 17 ‘Duet’

Example L’Enfant bar before figure 123 ‘Waltz’

‘Ravel is a machine, and happily so’[41], and he had a lifelong admiration for the mechanical and automated. Stravinsky has been repeatedly cited as referring to him as the ‘Swiss Clockmaker’, further enforcing Ravel’s ‘preference for the constructed and the fabricated.’[42] Ravel’s father, Joseph, was an engineer, and this exposed Maurice to the marvels of an industrial age. Finding Tunes in Factories (1933) is evidence enough of this important interest, and the essay discusses his desire to combine traditional composition with the ‘mechanical world of the factory.’[43] In fact, Ravel desired his Bolero to be performed in a factory.

Ravel’s fascination certainly fitted in the time, where the Eiffel Tower was a symbol of ‘technological endeavour’, featuring a gallery of machines. The interest permeated all the arts including the recently invented cinema, and Luigi Russolo similarly had an interest in the relationship between music and noise (‘The art of noises’ 1913). It could be suggested that the ‘Machine Age’ led to futurism, cubism and constructivism.

The opening of L’Heure with its bustling clock shop is a wonderful display of automation. We are surrounded by the differing ticks of various clocks and chime noises. Three distinct ‘ticks’ exist, and each of these is marked with a different metronome mark, remaining constant throughout the prelude. This kind of rigidly patterned movement accompanied by sustained or repeated notes is a texture often used by Ravel for evoking clocks, bells and water: ‘Le Gibet’, from Gaspard de la nuit, Jeux d’eau and  ‘La vallée des cloches (Miroirs) show such a texture. The ticking in L’Heure has contrapuntal independence from the surrounding music, as does the use of ostinato in Ravel’s later works; Frontispiece (1918) displays this kind of independence. A typical example of earlier ostinato freedom is found in Rapsodie espagnole, where two metres are essentially juxtaposed.

Example L’Heure Opening

Example Rapsodie espagnole Figure 7

‘The clocks are in some ways more human than the humans’[44], and the fact the humans are discussed in terms of machines furthers this argument. They are all concerned with time; Concepcion ‘grabbing her hour’, Ramiro needs a repair to his watch, the banker fears death and all contrasted with Gonzalve’s disregard to time. Time is given a grotesque and mischievous edge, due to Ravel’s additions to Franc-Nohain’s text. This is achieved by ‘grotesque automations: some dancers, musical marionettes, a soldier, a cockerel, an exotic bird, whose mechanical movements add to the illusion’[45] of the opening clock shop.

Example L’Heure 3 bars before figure 3; the celesta representing one of these musical automations in the clock shop.

‘Jankélévitch points to a predilection for derailed mechanisms like out-of-tune pianos and ‘bleating gramophones that Ravel shares with Satie, and to music-box and mechanical piano sounds he favours along with Séverac, Milhaud and Debussy’[46]. This is especially apparent when Ravel approaches mechanisms through a child’s imagination; we see a damaged clock in L’Enfant (see example below) singing a march and a mechanical cricket in Histoires naturelles (1906). The piano in L’Enfant is modified to evoke such a derailed mechanism, through the use of a lutheal; a device attached to the piano to make it sound more like a harpsichord. Playing white notes against black also gives an ‘out of tune’ timbre. (See example below). Generally, such localised ‘novelties remain basically surface elaborations applied to a still solidly tonal and triadic foundation’[47]. Ravel’s musical style in the post-war years places a greater weight on counterpoint and this increasingly ‘horizontal rather than vertical’ approach is widely evident in L’Enfant, and less so in L’Heure.

Example L’Enfant figure 21

Example L’Enfant figure 9

Carolyn Abbate highlights the ‘mechanism’ in the pastoral interlude, or musette, in L’Enfant. (See example 4) The piano plays an ‘obligatory pastoral drone on open fifths’[48], with the cor anglais and ‘rustic’ woodwind producing the music of the peasantry. Such music can be performed ad infinitum, and this example has no ‘real’ ending. Abbate suggests that ‘the piano sound instantly re-creates a history erased by prelapsarian wind timbres, reminding us of the mechanical endgame those winds would deny.’[49] The inventive use of the chorus also invokes a mechanism that comes into being, using sounds such as Zzzzz and Annnn. Another mechanism exists the evocation of the instrument ‘musette’, where its ‘bagpipe or accordion timbres resemble that of a mechanical barrel organ, and their social connotations of peasantry and proletariat are reproduced in the object’s function as a poor person’s toy.’[50] ‘While the musette as a genre piece morphed from pastoral to mechanical … Musettes were bagpipes … the shepherd’s instrument.’[51] The use of this style, and instrumental timbres to evoke such an instrument are well suited in the musette in L’Enfant. 

Example L’Enfant 3 bars before figure 52 (2 bars of this)

Abbate reminds us though, that ‘within an oeuvre “entirely occupied with composing for itself the imperturbable, indifferent and perfectly inexpressive mask of the engineer”’ Ravel is still able to show a ‘burst of emotion’[52] L’Heure may have a mechanical theme, but the interest is maintained throughout by his avoidance of constant repetition. In L’Enfant, the ‘mechanical’ toys and objects become animated and take on ‘human speech’; The damaged clock in L’Enfant does not always sing punctuated crotchets, but does sing in an expressive, ‘human’ way. In Ravel’s mechanisms, there is always ‘beauty’.

Ravel ‘revealed his sensitivity to the world of childhood [in L’Enfant] capturing the imagination, frustration and need for love which are so fundamental to childhood.’[53]Barbara Kelly writes that he often preferred the company of children to that of his fellow adults. The opening, (certainly expresses child-like naivety, not unlike that found in Satie’s Gymnopedies) ‘whose bleak harmonies and uncertain metre are even more suggestive of loneliness and aimlessness than the opening of ‘Petit Poucet’ in Ma mere l’oye.’[54] The texture is similar in both, yet the instrumentation is different (see example below, comparing with example one).

Example ‘Petit Poucet’ from Ma mere l’oye Opening

‘The idea of involving in these pieces the poetry of childhood naturally led to a simpler style’[55], and the aftermath of the Great War (including the loss of his mother) helped to instigate this greater economy of means leading to a ‘primacy of melody’.[56] L’Enfant certainly has a chamber quality to its use of instrumentation, making use of the force of the whole orchestra at significant points in the opera. The spectrum of possible textures in this work is especially wide. Compare the examples below; the accompaniment of the Princess by the solo flute line, then the ‘quasi-tutti’ section following the entrance of the Flames. L’Heure similarly has a broad range of instrumentation accompanying the action, yet L’Enfant seems to have even exceeded that. The increased variety in L’Enfant is necessary; we must remember that it is a ‘child’s fantasy’, and Ravel has used the resources to produce such a vantage point. Simplicity of texture helps to create a naïve and child-like evocation, and this is certainly achieved with the appearance of the Princess, and the opening of the work.

Example L’Enfant figure 64

Example L’Enfant figure 43, two bars before.

The child’s imagination in L’Enfant certainly runs wild, and the insolent child is exposed to numerous objects that spring to life and attack him. Ravel uses a musical language that evokes such a vivid imagination; the various numbers are made ‘grotesque’ with the semitonal clashes and unique instrumental timbres. It is music that certainly instils fear in the child, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The damaged clock sings an unbearingly high note (within a large vocal range of the number) against the orchestra, the use of contra-bassoon and trombone in the number that follows (with the black Wedgwood and china cup).

Ravel produces the child’s antithesis in the authoritative Maman. Visually, she exists on stage only as the lower half of her body, with the exaggeration of size being a further manifestation of a child’s imagination, and a child’s perspective of an authority figure. The illusion to authority through a Bach association has already been mentioned, and Kamlinsky (2000) furthers the discussion by isolating the ‘Maman cadence’ and showing that its ‘transformations … reflect both the child’s wilful silence to his mother’s queries and her mounting displeasure.’ (See example below). He further suggests that the ‘corruption of the opening prelude’s opening pitch level becomes associated with the incipient moral corruption of the child’[57]. Kamlinsky draws our attention to the close of the opera, where the child acceptance of his mother’s authority is shown by the accompaniment of his ‘Maman’ with the ‘Maman-cadence’. This cadence now has a revised harmonic function compared to the opening; it outlined II – V (in G) at the start, but now outlines V-I, ‘in one stroke, communicating the strength and finality of Maman’s will, and the child’s submission to it’[58]. These transformations reflect a structural cohesion where ‘Maman [is] the enabler of the child’s moral transformation’.

Example L’Enfant entrance of Maman. (get example from article)

The child’s perspective is a subject that has occupied other works by Ravel and works by other composers, perhaps famously in Children’s Corner by Debussy.

The use of double bass harmonics was used in this work also, and it is often used to evoke the practising of a child: this fits well with the homework the child is failing to complete at the opening of L’Enfant. Richard Langham Smith suggests that this timbre (first used by Debussy) ‘paved the way for the false naivety often used for the Child’s music.[59] Such naivety is evident in the further exploitation of a ‘Debussyian’ device where the Child juxtaposes white notes against black (used in ‘Serenade for a Doll’ from Children’s Corner) and again with the ‘warped’ nursery rhyme[60] coloured by ‘wrong’ notes, used sequentially ‘as the Child delights in his naughtiness’[61].

 Example L’Enfant figure 7


‘Ravel composed from within his own Western imagination with a Western audience in mind maximising the allure of his compositions through his modal melodies, piquant harmonics and evocative orchestration, only occasionally emphasising the threats and dangers of the unknown that lay beneath its sensuous surface.’[62]

Pastiche and parody are elements that are central to the concepts of his only completed operas, but it becomes increasingly apparent that a greater amount of Ravel’s oeuvre is occupied with references to other styles, forms and cultures. A reference to his own work is not uncommon. Burkholder reminds us though, that ‘given the increasing emphasis on originality in art music it is remarkable how frequently twentieth century composers incorporated existing music.’[63] To paraphrase Robert P. Morgan, there is little difficulty to saying that ‘among [Ravel’s] most remarkable features is [his] ability to accommodate elements from many distinct subcultures that frequently cut across traditional geographic and aesthetic boundaries’[64] in a style that is undeniably linked with tradition while remaining unique. It is his ability to combine and juxtapose that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. It is important to note however, of all the issues Ravel was concerned with artistically, ‘exoticism embraces them all and in one form or another pervades his entire output.’[65]

This use of pastiche and parody shows an attempt at distancing himself from his subjects. This ‘distancing’ goes further in Chansons madecasses (1926) which uses a selection of Parney’s poetry from 1787, and Robert Orledge notices such a trend: ‘Ravel distanced himself … from his creations by choosing literary sources from the past as their bases.’[66] This was just one of many ‘masks’, but Mawer tells us that ‘in peeling off one mask there is invariably another beneath’ and that ‘the masks are so bound up with Ravel’s identity that, at one level they are part of him.’[67]

[1] Laloy, L. (1999) p. 241

[2] Smith, R. L (2000) p. 188

[3] Orenstein, (1991) p. 127

[4] Smith, R. L. (2000) p.188.

[5] Kelly, B. L. (2000) in Cambridge Companion. p 9

[6] Ibid. p. 10

[7] Kelly, B. L. (Grove article)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p. 25

[10] Laloy, L. (1999) p. 266

[11] Mawer, D, (2000) in Cambridge Companion p. 1

[12] Boyd, M. (2000) p. 155

[13] The character of the mother is sung, but represented visually by only the bottom half of her on stage. We only see the skirt, apron and her pointing hand.

[14] Smith, R. L. (2000) in Cambridge Companion p. 201.

[15] Kelly, B. L. (2000) in Cambridge Companion p. 26.

[16] Ibid. p. 26.

[17] Orledge, (2000) p. 32

[18] Watkins, G. (1994) p. 27

[19] Ibid p. 30

[20] Saint-Saens: quoted in Watkins, G. (1994) p. 27

[21] Ibid p. 28

[22] Orledge, R. p. 43

[23] Ibid p.30

[24] Ibid p.29

[25] Ibid p.45

[26] Laloy, L. p. 243

[27] Orledge, R, (2000) p. 27

[28] Ibid p. 28

[29] Laloy, L. (1999) p. 255

[30] Or ledge, (2000) p.45

[31] Laloy, L. (1999) p. 243

[32] Whittall, A. (1999) p. 85

[33] Kelly, B. L. (Grove article)

[34] Laloy, L. (1999) p. 243

[35] Orledge, (2000) p.32

[36] Ibid p.35

[37] Kelly, B. L. (Grove article)

[38] Abbate, C. (1999) p. 498

[39] Orledge, (2000) p.32

[40] Ibid p.39

[41] Abbate, C. (1999) p. 495

[42] Kelly, B. L. (Grove article)

[43] Ibid

[44] Orenstein, (1991) p. 183

[45] Smith, R. L. (2000) p. 192

[46] Abbate, C. (1999) p. 496

[47] Morgan, R.P. (1991) p. 127

[48] Abbate, C. (1999) p. 511

[49] Ibid

[50] Ibid p. 503

[51] Ibid p. 503

[52] Inib p. 497

[53] Kelly, B. L. (Grove article)

[54] Larner, G. p. 184

[55] Orenstein, p. 127

[56] Orledge, p.45

[57] Kamlinksy (2000) p. 40

[58] Ibid p. 42

[59] Smith, R. L. (2000) p. 207

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Orledge, p.44

[63] Burkholder, (Grove article)

[64] Morgan, R. P. p. 328

[65] Orledge, p.45

[66] Orledge, p.39

[67] Mawer, D. p. 1


  1. “not by the number of his works or by the scale of their proportions: their interest suffices.”
    Your opening quote is, I think, a very well put observation not just on the theatre pieces, but Ravel’s work as a whole.

    Fascinating stuff, and I wish I knew more music theory. But you write very clearly and I think I get most of it in gist even if I don’t get all the detail. Oh, if you *do* teach a class on the operas – a class that’s open, that is – then do let me know as I’d be really interested to come along. Ta.

  2. PS In case you don’t already know – the BBC Symphony Orch will be performing L’Heure in October 2012, and L’Enfant (with some film/animation effects) in April 2013 at Barbican Centre. Nudges to get your (possible) class/workshops under way??

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