Maurice Ravel – L’enfant et les sortilèges (“The child and the enchantments”)
(b. Ciboure, 7 March 1875 – d. Paris, 28 December 1937)
Fantaisie lyrique in two parts (1920-25) to a libretto by Colette
“His hair, now a mixture of white and black, crowned him with a sort of plumage, and while he was talking he would fold his delicate, rodent’s hands and his gaze would flit over the surface of things like a squirrel” (Colette on Maurice Ravel, 1939)
“Throughout the whole of his life Ravel inhabited a world of children and animals. He suffered the entire time from the discrepancy between his diminutive stature and that of the rest of the world. To overcome this disparity through the perfection of artistic forms was his creative stimulus at all times.” (Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, 1966)
Rodent’s hands, squirrel’s gaze, diminutive stature: Ravel struck many observers as a cross between a precociously mature little boy and an anthropomorphized furry and furtive animal. Yet it is to these very traits of his character that we owe some of the finest musical depictions of animals (Oiseaux tristes, 1904-5; Histoires naturelles, 1906) and the world of childhood (Ma mère l’oye, 1908-10) ever to have sprung from the mind of a major composer. Small wonder, then, that when the French writer Colette, herself an inhabitant of these same two imaginative worlds, approached him with a stage project involving a naughty little boy who is tormented, punished, and later forgiven by animals after throwing a temper tantrum, he immediately agreed. What he could not have known was that the resultant work would occupy him for many years and become his opus summum, the consummation of his creative endeavors and a testament to his life’s work as a composer.
Colette – or, to use her full name, Sidonie-Gabrille Colette (1873-1954) – was not only a celebrated demi-mondaine and scandal-ridden sexual liberationist, but by general consent France’s greatest female writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Beginning by probing the erotic and social awakening of young girls in her justly famous Claudine novels (1900-03), she later turned to the world of animals, with whom she felt secretly in league against a male-dominated society (La Paix chez les bêtes, 1916). Today she is probably best known, at least in the English-speaking world, for her late novel Gigi (1944), which became the basis of the ever-popular film musical of the same title (1958).
Colette was already famous when Jacques Rouché, the head of the Paris Opèra, approached her in 1914 with a request to write a work for the musical stage. The result was a dance scenario, or what she called a “féerie-ballet,” to which she gave the working title Divertissement pour ma fille. She immediately agreed to offer the musical setting to Ravel, whom she had known for many years from Paris’s musical and literary salons. The manuscript was dispatched in 1916 to the composer in Verdun, where he was serving his brief stint as a truck driver on the battlefields of World War I. It never arrived, and it was only much later, in 1918, that Ravel received a libretto for the interesting new project. He agreed to it, but only on one surprising condition: that the fanciful text, with its mélange of animate and inanimate objects of all shapes and sizes, be transformed into an opera…
Read full preface by Bradford Robinson > HERE