SAINT-SAENS: Carnival of the Animals / RAVEL: Mother Goose
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Carnival of theAnimals
The French composerCamille Saint-Sa?½ns was prolific and lived a long time, although by the time ofhis death in 1921 music had changed beyond anything he could have conceived. Hewas a gifted pianist and, in common with many other well known Frenchcomposers, found employment and distinction as organist at one of the principalchurches in Paris. The popular Carnival of the Animals, described as A
Zoological Fantasy, was written in 1886, originally for two pianos and asmall chamber orchestra to celebrate that year's carnival. The composer forbadefurther performances of this occasional music, except for The Swan, whichenjoyed immediate and irresistible popularity.
The pianos open thework in a brief introduction that seems to suggest the roar of the lions,before the Royal March begins, with its suggestions of the exotic in itstheme. Cocks and Hens are as true to nature as the composer can makethem, followed by Wild Asses of unexpected rapidity of motion, incontrast to the lumbering Tortoise, who offers a can-can at the slowestpossible speed, putting a foot wrong here and there. The Elephants arenaturally represented by the double bass in an episode that includes a directquotation of the highly inappropriate Ballet of the Sylphs by Berlioz.
The pianos alone then imitate the capricious leaps of the Kangaroos, tobe followed by an evocation of the Aquarium. People with Long Ears, critics,are portrayed by piercing whistles and the braying of donkeys, while pianos andclarinet bring in the Cuckoo, followed by the rest of the Birds, withthe help of the flute. Pianists, creatures not usually found in zoos,practice their scales, heavily accented, and are followed by Fossils, withtunes of undoubted antiquity and interesting activity for the xylophone. The Swansings its dying song on the cello, reminding us now of the dance devised byFokin for the great Anna Pavlova. The fantasy ends with a summary of much thathas gone before.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Mother Goose
Maurice Ravel, incommon with other great composers, uses a musical language that is instantlyrecognisable, whether in the sparer textures of music that recalls classicaland earlier traditions, in his innovative writing for the piano or hiscolourful use of the modern orchestra. He was born in Ciboure in the BassesPyrenees in 1875, the son of an engineer of Swiss ancestry and a mother whocame from the Basque country. From his father he acquired an interest in thingsmechanical and a certain meticulous precision in his music and in his personalhabits, while from his mother he inherited an affinity with Spain and afamiliarity with the language of that country, an element reflected in some ofhis compositions.
Ravel entered theParis Conservatoire in 1889, but was to fail to win there the distinction andthe necessary prizes that his abilities deserved. He withdrew in 1895 butreturned in 1897 to study composition with Gabriel Faure, a sympatheticteacher, who had succeeded Massenet at the Conservatoire the year before, afterthe death of his implacable opponent Ambroise Thomas.
By the early years ofthe present century Ravel had begun to earn a reputation for himself as acomposer, in spite of the hostility of certain critics. He was to fail,however, to win the important Prix de Rome, the rejection of his finalentry in 1905 causing a public scandal that led to the resignation of thedirector of the Conservatoire, who was succeeded by Faure. Instead he continuedto gain ground against his opponents in the musical and critical establishment,and in 1909 was commissioned by the Russian impresario Sergey Dyagilev to writethe score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloe, staged in 1912.
During the war yearsRavel served as a transport driver, his lack of weight excluding him from themore active form of military service he would have preferred. Illness and thedeath of his mother in 1916 both diminished his activity as a composer, but by1920 he had completed, at the prompting of Dyagilev, the choreographic poem LaValse and had started work on the operatic collaboration with Colette thatresulted in the delightful L'enfant et les sortil?¿ges, in which elementsof Ravel's various interests combine.
The death of Debussyin 1918, followed six years later by the death of Faure, left Ravel as theleading French composer in the eyes of his contemporaries. There were to bevarious commissions and the establishment of an international reputation thatbrought him honour abroad and the offer of the Legion d'honneur at home, adistinction he rejected. His career was tragically shortened by theincreasingly debilitating effects of what was later diagnosed as Pick'sdisease. He died in 1937 after an unsuccessful brain operation.
Ma m?¿re l'oye ('Mother Goose') was originally written as asuite of Mother Goose nursery tales for piano duet to entertain the children ofRavel's friend Cipa Godebski. It was orchestrated and extended as a balletscore in 1911, the year after its composition. The suite opens with SleepingBeauty's Pavane, followed by Hop-o'-my-thumb, with his trail ofbreadcrumbs leading through the forest. Little Ugly is Empress of tinyoriental insect-musicians. Thereafter Beauty converses with the Beast,and the work ends in a Fairy Garden.
Paul Dukas (1865-1935): The Sorcerer's Apprentice
A friend of Debussy atthe Conservatoire and a pupil of Bizet's friend Guiraud, Paul Dukas came nearto winning the Prix de Rome, but when he left the Conservatoire found anearly musical career as a critic and as an orchestrator. His strong criticalsense led him to destroy a number of his compositions and only to allow arelatively small number of works to be published. He remained influential andrespected as a teacher.
By far the best knownof the compositions of Dukas is the symphonic scherzo L'apprenti sorcier, ('TheSorcerer's Apprentice'), inspired by Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling. Themusic was later popularised by its inclusion in Walt Disney's Fantasia, withappropriate cartoon illustration. A year before, in 1896, Dukas had completedhis only symphony, a work that deserves more attention than it has generallyreceived.