About this Recording
8.573354 - RAVEL, M. / FERROUD, P.-O. / IBERT, J. / etc.: Éventail de Jeanne (L') / RAVEL, M.: Ma Mère l'Oye (Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, Axelrod)
English  French 

Ravel • Ferroud • Ibert • Roland-Manuel • Delannoy • Roussel • Milhaud • Poulenc • Auric • Schmitt
Jean’s Fan – Ballet

 

While collaborations between composers and writers, choreographers and artists have resulted in many masterpieces—not least in the genres of song, opera and ballet—collaborations between composers and other composers are far less common. One might think of the ‘F.A.E.’ Sonata, known today primarily for its thirdmovement Scherzo by Brahms¹; or the madcap French ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower), which includes a libretto by Jean Cocteau with music by five members of Les Six² (Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre and Georges Auric). The latter work is typical of the fashion for the absurd so prevalent in 1920s Paris, when there was a reaction in French music against the Wagnerian influences of the late nineteenth century, the impressionism of Debussy, and the dominating atmosphere of the circle around Franck. Many French composers found inspiration in the everyday world about them, including the circus, the music hall, the fairground and jazz. Satire, levity, shock and pastiche were the trademarks of such figures who, as well as adopting these modern influences, also looked back to the simple, stylised dance forms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These stylised dance forms are found in abundance in another collaborative work: L’Éventail de Jeanne (Jean’s Fan), a children’s ballet choreographed by Alice Bourgat and Yvonne Franck in 1927. “Jeanne” refers to the Parisian hostess and patroness of the arts, Jeanne Dubost, who ran a children’s ballet school. She was at the centre of a group of musicians and writers for whom she would organise musical soirées. In the spring of 1927 she presented ten of her composer friends each with a leaf from her fan, asking them to write a short dance for her pupils. The resulting children’s ballet was produced in private on 16th June that year at Dubost’s Paris salon, with Maurice Ravel, no less, playing a piano transcription of the music, while its public première took place at the Paris Opéra on 4th March 1929, with the ten-year-old Tamara Toumanova (who went on to become an international ballet star) dancing the lead rôle.

Ravel was no mere accompanist, however, for he supplied the opening movement of this collaborative project. It is ironic that this Fanfare, written by the most celebrated composer of the group, is also the briefest piece. As with so much of his music, concision is the key here, and although it lasts barely a minute and a half, it was such a success at the première that it was encored at the end of the performance. Alexis Roland-Manuel, another of the ballet’s contributors, rather aptly described it as “a Lilliputian flourish, which begins like the buzzing of troops of insects and rises to its climax in the style of Götterdämmerung”.

There follows a Marche by Pierre-Octave Ferroud, a relatively obscure figure, whose life was cut short by a car crash at the age of thirty-six—an event which had a profound effect upon another of the composers involved in this work: Poulenc. Ferroud had been a pupil of Florent Schmitt (whose music concludes the ballet), though the greatest influence in his Marche is surely Stravinsky, not least in its lean scoring (requiring just sixteen players), its chamber-like textures and the dominance of rhythm above all else, with its strict, dotted, military rhythmic figures.

If Stravinsky’s presence is felt in Ferroud’s piece, the shadow of Ravel certainly looms large in Jacques Ibert’s Valse. Ibert was a pupil of Fauré and trained at the Paris Conservatoire before becoming Director of the French Academy in Rome, and later the Paris Opéra. It is well-nigh impossible not to hear echoes of Ravel’s La Valse (1919–20) in this movement, though the somewhat sinister, macabre undertones of Ravel’s masterpiece are eschewed here in favour of humour and gaieté.

Next comes a Canarie—an upbeat, traditional French Renaissance dance similar to a gigue, and popular across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The music for this energetic dance is by Roland-Manuel, who studied with two of the other composers represented in this work—Ravel and Albert Roussel. Roland-Manuel was Professor of Aesthetics at the Conservatoire de Paris, making many contributions to musical theory and criticism, and even assisting Stravinsky by ghost-writing the theoretical work The Poetics of Music

In contrast to the aforementioned composers, Marcel Delannoy was a largely self-taught composer, having previously been an architect and painter, though he did have some lessons with Honegger. His movement is in the style of a bourrée—a sixteenth-century French dance often found in baroque suites, perhaps most notably the solo cello suites and solo violin partitas of Bach. After a sprightly opening comes a section that bears more than a passing resemblance to the final Rigaudon from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, both in its harmonic language and in its orchestration.

Following several years as a midshipman in the navy, Roussel resigned from the service to devote his time to composition, and went on to become one of the most important composers of the modern French school. While Ravel and Debussy were early influences, Roussel turned to neoclassicism in his later years and is best known today for his symphonies and ballets, including Bacchus et Ariane. His Sarabande, which looks back to the dark, courtly Spanish baroque dance in triple-time, provides the work’s central, reflective slow movement.

The next three movements come from the three representatives of Les Six: Milhaud, Poulenc and Auric respectively. For Milhaud, L’Éventail de Jeanne was not a happy experience: he had written much for the stage which had not been produced at the Paris Opéra, and was quite put out when he heard this children’s ballet was to be mounted there, not least because it meant that he was making his debut at the distinguished theatre with a mere Polka rather than one of his more serious works. Consequently, he refused to attend the performances, missing the precocious Toumanova’s tremendous success in his jolly little dance.

Fortunately no such dramas befell Poulenc with his contribution. As with so much of his music, this Pastourelle amply demonstrates his gift for wit and instantly-attractive melodic lines. The pastourelle itself is simply an old French lyric form with a rural theme (often romantic encounters between shepherds and shepherdesses), dating right back to the Troubadour poets of the twelfth century. Poulenc’s charming movement is perhaps the best known of all the pieces that make up L’Éventail de Jeanne, thanks to the composer’s transcription of it as an independent piano piece.

Known for his work with Les Six and his scores for classic films, Auric adopted a traditional rondo form (ABACADA) for his piece. ‘A’ comprises a brief 5/8 section in thirds with a Spanish flavour; ‘B’ is a delicate, light-footed dance; ‘C’ is a lively gallop, enjoyed by the upper strings and solo trumpet; and ‘D’ is a starkly contrasting waltz, which is much more sombre in tone. Solo instruments pass on a melancholic melody, beginning with the flute, but this moment of repose is soon swept aside for the final statement of ‘A’, dancing along to its jovial conclusion.

Just as the first movement of the ballet is also the shortest in duration, the final movement is the longest. Unlike all the other contributors however, Schmitt did not write original music for this, but instead resurrected a Carnival Waltz he had written some twenty years earlier, which served to conclude the ballet with a danse générale. Practical considerations were clearly not a top priority for Schmitt, since his Kermesse-Valse requires considerably larger forces than for the previous dances. Nevertheless, the expanded scoring affords a truly grand finale, which effectively combines a romantic waltz with the fun and frolics of a carnival.

Dominic Wells

¹ The first movement of this four-movement sonata is by Albert Dietrich, while the second and fourth movements are by Schumann, who instigated the sonata as a gift to the violinist, Joseph Joachim. Today, Brahms’ Scherzo is often played in isolation, and is the only movement to be regularly included in recitals and recordings.

² A name coined by the critic Henri Collet in 1917, referring to a group of six French composers: Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre and Poulenc. Although some of the members of this group collaborated on several musical projects, only one work—L’Album des Six—comprises contributions from all six composers.

³ For further reading, see Robert Craft’s paper Roland-Manuel and the ‘Poetics of Music’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1982–Summer, 1983), pp. 487–505.

Ravel: Mother Goose – Ballet

Ravel wrote his Mother Goose Suite for the children of friends to play as a duet on the piano. In 1912 he adapted the five pieces into a wonderfully colourful work for orchestra, and then into an expanded version to be used for a new ballet. The well-known stories that he translated into music were taken from the tales published in the seventeenth century by Charles Perrault, and stories retold by Madame d’Aulnoy and Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

In the expanded ballet version of the music the Prélude sets the scene, followed by the Danse du rouet (Dance of the Spinning Wheel). An old woman is seen spinning. Princess Florine enters and, as she dances, stumbles against the distaff, pricking her finger. Help is summoned, but to no avail. In Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane) the Princess is compelled to sleep by the spell of the old woman, revealed as the Wicked Fairy who had laid a curse on her, now to be guarded until woken by a handsome prince. Ravel’s music suggests the tranquillity of the sleeping princess in the enchanted palace, with the tangled undergrowth of the forest that surrounds it, through which the prince will eventually make his way.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations between Beauty and the Beast) recalls the tale of Beauty, the youngest of her father’s children, and her willingness to give her life for her father by fulfilling his pledge and going to live in the fine palace that belonged to the Beast, a monster whom she pitied, ugly as he was. The ballet shows her powdering her face and admiring herself in the mirror. The Beast pleads with her and eventually she agrees to marry him, at which he is restored to his original shape, a handsome prince. The music of Ravel suggests Beauty’s pity for the Beast, his plea for marriage and her final acceptance of his proposal, with its consequence.

Petit Poucet (Hop-o’-my-Thumb) translates into music the story of the boy, the youngest of the seven sons of a very poor woodcutter, and so small that, when he was born, he was only the size of a thumb. He overhears his father’s plan to abandon the children in the forest and leaves a trail of pebbles, so that they can all find their way back home. The second time his parents try to lose their children, he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, but the birds eat the bread while they all sleep, so that the children are really lost, a predicament that leads to further adventures.

Laideronette, impératrice des Pagodes (Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodas) is the victim of a wicked fairy who appears uninvited at the little girl’s christening, cursing her with ugliness. Isolated by the Queen her mother, Laideronette finds happiness after her meeting with a green serpent, and a marriage that allows the spell that she and her husband have been under finally to be broken. A magic voyage takes Laideronette to the land of the pagodas, musician figures of every shape and size, who entertain her with their music.

The final movement in the ballet, Le Jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden) brings Prince Charming into the place where Princess Florine lies in her enchanted sleep. She wakes and the Prince and Princess are joined by the characters of the fairy tales that have been seen, to be blest finally by the Good Fairy.

Keith Anderson


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