About this Recording
8.554463 - SAINT-SAENS: Carnival of the Animals / RAVEL: Mother Goose (Children's Classics)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Carnival of the Animals

The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was prolific and lived a long time, although by the time of his death in 1921 music had changed beyond anything he could have conceived. He was a gifted pianist and, in common with many other well known French composers, found employment and distinction as organist at one of the principal churches in Paris. The popular Carnival of the Animals, described as A Zoological Fantasy, was written in 1886, originally for two pianos and a small chamber orchestra to celebrate that year's carnival. The composer forbade further performances of this occasional music, except for The Swan, which enjoyed immediate and irresistible popularity.

The pianos open the work 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 its theme. Cocks and Hens are as true to nature as the composer can make them, followed by Wild Asses of unexpected rapidity of motion, in contrast to the lumbering Tortoise, who offers a can-can at the slowest possible speed, putting a foot wrong here and there. The Elephants are naturally represented by the double bass in an episode that includes a direct quotation of the highly inappropriate Ballet of the Sylphs by Berlioz. The pianos alone then imitate the capricious leaps of the Kangaroos, to be followed by an evocation of the Aquarium. People with Long Ears, critics, are portrayed by piercing whistles and the braying of donkeys, while pianos and clarinet bring in the Cuckoo, followed by the rest of the Birds, with the help of the flute. Pianists, creatures not usually found in zoos, practice their scales, heavily accented, and are followed by Fossils, with tunes of undoubted antiquity and interesting activity for the xylophone. The Swan sings its dying song on the cello, reminding us now of the dance devised by Fokin for the great Anna Pavlova. The fantasy ends with a summary of much that has gone before.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Mother Goose

Maurice Ravel, in common with other great composers, uses a musical language that is instantly recognisable, whether in the sparer textures of music that recalls classical and earlier traditions, in his innovative writing for the piano or his colourful use of the modern orchestra. He was born in Ciboure in the Basses Pyrénées in 1875, the son of an engineer of Swiss ancestry and a mother who came from the Basque country. From his father he acquired an interest in things mechanical and a certain meticulous precision in his music and in his personal habits, while from his mother he inherited an affinity with Spain and a familiarity with the language of that country, an element reflected in some of his compositions.

Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889, but was to fail to win there the distinction and the necessary prizes that his abilities deserved. He withdrew in 1895 but returned in 1897 to study composition with Gabriel Fauré, a sympathetic teacher, who had succeeded Massenet at the Conservatoire the year before, after the death of his implacable opponent Ambroise Thomas.

By the early years of the present century Ravel had begun to earn a reputation for himself as a composer, in spite of the hostility of certain critics. He was to fail, however, to win the important Prix de Rome, the rejection of his final entry in 1905 causing a public scandal that led to the resignation of the director of the Conservatoire, who was succeeded by Fauré. Instead he continued to gain ground against his opponents in the musical and critical establishment, and in 1909 was commissioned by the Russian impresario Sergey Dyagilev to write the score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, staged in 1912.

During the war years Ravel served as a transport driver, his lack of weight excluding him from the more active form of military service he would have preferred. Illness and the death of his mother in 1916 both diminished his activity as a composer, but by 1920 he had completed, at the prompting of Dyagilev, the choreographic poem La Valse and had started work on the operatic collaboration with Colette that resulted in the delightful L'enfant et les sortilèges, in which elements of Ravel's various interests combine.

The death of Debussy in 1918, followed six years later by the death of Fauré, left Ravel as the leading French composer in the eyes of his contemporaries. There were to be various commissions and the establishment of an international reputation that brought him honour abroad and the offer of the Légion d'honneur at home, a distinction he rejected. His career was tragically shortened by the increasingly debilitating effects of what was later diagnosed as Pick's disease. He died in 1937 after an unsuccessful brain operation.

Ma mère l'oye (‘Mother Goose’) was originally written as a suite of Mother Goose nursery tales for piano duet to entertain the children of Ravel's friend Cipa Godebski. It was orchestrated and extended as a ballet score in 1911, the year after its composition. The suite opens with Sleeping Beauty's Pavane, followed by Hop-o'-my-thumb, with his trail of breadcrumbs leading through the forest. Little Ugly is Empress of tiny oriental 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 at the Conservatoire and a pupil of Bizet's friend Guiraud, Paul Dukas came near to winning the Prix de Rome, but when he left the Conservatoire found an early musical career as a critic and as an orchestrator. His strong critical sense led him to destroy a number of his compositions and only to allow a relatively small number of works to be published. He remained influential and respected as a teacher.

By far the best known of the compositions of Dukas is the symphonic scherzo L'apprenti sorcier, (‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’), inspired by Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling. The music was later popularised by its inclusion in Walt Disney's Fantasia, with appropriate cartoon illustration. A year before, in 1896, Dukas had completed his only symphony, a work that deserves more attention than it has generally received.

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