In both style and substance, Maurice Ravel’s two operas are poles apart. The first, L’Heure espagnole (1911), is a risqué little sex comedy about a woman’s frustrations as she tries to get in a quickie during the hour a week that her husband is away. Based on an existing play by dramatist Franc-Nohain, it is sung almost entirely in a declamatory style, its vocal lines springing from the rhythms and inflections of spoken dialogue. The tone is ironic, parodic, even sarcastic.
Where L’Heure espagnole is about adultery, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925) is about childhood. Its elegant, lyrical libretto, by Colette, is a fairytale fantasy about a mischievous boy and his encounters with a series of household objects and garden animals. The opera is, as Ravel said, “in the style of an American musical comedy” – that is, a succession of distinct musical numbers – and its tone is all wonder, delight and sincerity.
The only thing the works seem to share is their composer. Certainly, both are as short and as immaculately turned out as Ravel was himself (a trim 5’4″, and a famously dapper dresser). But there is deeper way that, chalk and cheese though they are, both operas are quintessentially Ravel: L’Heure espagnole you could call his “father” opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges his “mother” opera.
Socially and temperamentally, Ravel’s parents were as different as – well, as L’Heure and L’Enfant. His father Pierre-Joseph, of Swiss ancestry, was an accomplished amateur musician and a successful engineer who invented a machine for making paper bags, patented a design for a steam-driven automobile and worked as a technical advisor on Gustave Eiffel’s railway projects. His mother, Marie, only semi-literate, was the illegitimate child of fisherfolk in the Basque country on the border with Spain. She was undoubtedly the strongest emotional attachment of Ravel’s life. Such parental dualities certainly marked Ravel’s character, whose debonair demeanour masked a tender, sometimes troubled soul. They also marked his music, in which – as his young friend Mimi Godebska recalled – “logic and wit did not always succeed in disguising the promptings of his heart”.
Nowhere is the duality clearer than in the two operas. The initial score of L’Heure Espagnole was written in 1907, at some speed. His father had fallen seriously ill, and Ravel wanted to please him while he was still alive by achieving the accolade of a staged opera. Time was not on his side: the opera was not produced until 1911, his father having died three years earlier.
But the inventive, engineering spirit of his father is strong in L’Heure. It may be set in Spain – and Ravel always attributed his Spanish influence to his mother – but as he said himself, “it is a Spain seen from the heights of Montmartre”. Never was Ravel closer to Stravinsky’s description of him as “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers” than in this meticulously constructed work. The opera is all about mechanics and timepieces: the set is a clockmaker’s shop, the libretto chimes with cheeky double-entendres likening the machinations of sex to the workings of clocks; the comedy is all in the timing, as the clock-maker’s wife engineers her suitors up and downstairs and in and out of grandfather clocks, in a race against time before her husband returns.
Ravel’s music, too, is as intricate as clockwork. Its famous opening sets a succession of brooding chords against three metronomes, timed at 40, 100 and 232 ticks per minute so that they coincide every 15 seconds. The effect is both marvellous and unsettling, suggesting a restless undercurrent set against the mechanical indifference of time. (With hindsight, it is hard not to think of Ravel’s own creative ferment, working away on the opera as his father’s life ticked by.)
The musical writing is sharply divided between voice and orchestra. The vocal lines take their cue from the inflections and intonations of speech, in an exaggerated recitative style – with two notable exceptions. First is the rhapsodising poet who, all mouth and no trousers, is forever bursting into song instead of getting down to action, his tenor voice (though nothing else) swelling with ardour. Second is the finale, where all five characters sing together like whirring automata on a cuckoo clock – another send-up of “operatic” style. The orchestra, meanwhile, is awash with heightened effects – glissandi, tremolos, astringent harmonic splashes, embroidered textures – and constantly undermines the seriousness of the protagonists with ironic sound-commentary, popping bubbles of pomposity, blowing sonic raspberries or distending style into caricature.
L’Heure espagnole is a brilliantly executed construction, and few could fail to appreciate its wit and dazzle (Francis Poulenc found the score “miraculous”, and ruefully added: “when you don’t have Ravel’s magical precision, which alas is the case with me, you have to set your music on sturdy feet”). Yet its ironic stance makes it easier to admire than to love. No such reservations with L’Enfant et les sortilèges, which replaces irony with affection. As meticulously crafted as ever, it is also far more directly expressive. But then Ravel, whose sexual life remained an enigma to all who knew him, was a child at heart, a man who would disappear from dinner parties only to be found in earnest conversation with the children of the household, telling them tall tales or playing with water-bombs.
As with his first opera, L’Enfant took a long time to come to fruition. Colette wrote the libretto in 1916, but Ravel had already signed up as a truck driver in the war, and did not receive the text until 1918; and it was not until 1925 that the work was finally staged. And as with his first opera, the work is deeply implicated with the death of a parent.
Late in 1916, Ravel returned to the family home to convalesce. Very soon after, his mother fell sick herself, and she died in January 1917. For Ravel, it was a wound that never healed. Certainly, when he returned to civilian life it was to a place he could no longer call home, and for some years after the war he lived a peripatetic life as a visitor, guest and lodger in friends’ houses. Colette’s libretto for L’Enfant must have touched him deeply, but he only managed to work on the opera for a while during 1920 before abandoning the project.
Then in 1921, he found a new home, where he was to live for the rest of his life: an idiosyncratic little cuckoo-clock of a house called Le Belvédère, in the village of Montfort L’Amaury. He filled it with toys and trinkets, planted miniature bonzai trees in the ornamental garden and hung his mother’s portrait in the music room. It was here that Ravel finally completed L’Enfant et les sortilèges. You sense the congenial presence of his home in the score’s exquisite lightness of touch and pleasure in sensory effect, but it is at heart a profoundly moving work about a boy who misses his mother.
The story tells of a solitary child who, scolded by his mother for laziness and insolence, flies into a tantrum and trashes his room. One by one the objects that he has damaged come to life and turn on him. The boy is torn between recalcitrance and regret. The scenes are repeated with animals and plants in the garden, and now he feels tired, afraid and alone. But a small act of kindness (he binds a squirrel’s paw) makes them see that he is, really, a good boy; and the creatures band together to call out that little word they had heard him cry… “mama”.
The score is essentially a series of puppetlike musical portraits, each with its own distinct character (a pattern that recalls the page-turning cameos of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, another enchanting children’s tale subtly marked by war and death). The format gives Ravel a stylistic freedom that he relishes like a child in a toyshop: he has a ragtime, a foxtrot and a waltz, tries out whizz-bang devices and olde-worlde effects, a little homeliness here, a little exoticism there, some joy, some sorrow. Nowhere does he have more fun than with the “duo miaolé”, its raucous caterwauls and suggestive miaows a result of hours of listening to his own Siamese cats; and nowhere is he more serious-minded than in the final fugue which transfigures the simple phrase “he is a good boy” into a chorale of spiritual redemption.
Ravel, ever the artisan, always put great care and effort into making his music appear carefree and effortless.
In lesser hands, such a miscellany might have turned into cacophony, but Ravel, ever the artisan, always put great care and effort into making his music appear carefree and effortless. Framing the score are two small, symmetrical moments that lift the opera from enchanting to visionary. There is a falling, two-note interval (a descending fourth) that recurs all through Ravel’s music like the trace of a signature, its effect curiously indeterminate, a kind of musical outbreath or trailing ellipsis. In L’Enfant, it is linked with the figure of the mother, who appears only at the beginning and at the end. At the beginning the motif is harmonised with a rising bass, like a question left hanging in the air; at the end, the bass note sinks down to rest. It’s as if the question the music raises at the beginning of the opera – “maman?” – is the same as the answer it finally yields: “maman.”
L’Enfant et les sortilèges was a profoundly personal piece for Ravel, whose deepest war wound was the death of his mother, its balm found in his beloved house Le Belvédère. To know that the opera was also marked by Ravel’s wartime experience hearing wounded soldiers crying out – of course – for their mothers, adds to its charge. But in the end it is a work that speaks to anyone who has keenly felt the separation from their mother – which is, after all, the consequence of our being born.