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Spells of Childhood

Revealing Ravel

By Valère Etienne / BmO 10 January 2020
Spells of Childhood

Ravel had a difficult relationship with opera: having left only two short operas situated at the genre’s edge, he can easily be considered as a master of the orchestra with little inclination to submit his instrumental evocations to the demands of staged performance. If, however, with L’Enfant et les sortilèges, he attained an unmitigated success in this domain, it is because there was a perfect osmosis, arising from certain circumstances, between the composer and his subject: a rare phenomenon.


Ravel had a difficult relationship with opera: having left only two short operas situated at the genre’s edge, he can easily be considered as a master of the orchestra with little inclination to submit his instrumental evocations to the demands of staged performance. If, however, with L’Enfant et les sortilèges, he attained an unmitigated success in this domain, it is because there was a perfect osmosis, arising from certain circumstances, between the composer and his subject: a rare phenomenon.

When, in 1917, Ravel received the text from Colette that was to become the synopsis of L’Enfant et les sortileges, he was in no hurry to undertake the collaboration. At this period, Ravel had just come back from the front: exhausted by his experience of war, he had also just lost his mother, an event which was, by his own admission, the greatest drama of his life. Under these conditions, Collette’s solicitation was initially nothing but a nuisance. The text he received bore the title Divertissement pour ma fille (Entertainment for my daughter). “But I don’t have a daughter” he replied curtly to Colette, Besides the irony, one senses in these words the sincerity of a man genuinely incapable of sharing the parental feelings animating Colette when he himself, grieving for his mother, felt as if he had been plunged back into childhood.

However, at the beginning of 1919, he renewed contact with Colette and agreed to write the music for the ballet (which was later to become an opera), with the request to make a few modifications to the libretto. He seemed ready to exorcise the child welling up inside him by illustrating this tale providing he could appropriate the subject more intimately. After another gap of several years, Ravel got back to work and resumed his discussions with Colette, notably on the matter of the title of the work: from Divertissement pour ma fille, it became Divertissement pour les jeunes filles, then found its definitive title, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Bewitched Child) in November 1924. One sees how the title, having abandoned the third person, departed from Colette’s initial viewpoint and allowed that of the child itself to occupy the central position.     

In fact, Ravel gradually took possession of the subject Colette had offered him and, having embraced it, was able to write exactly the music he wanted to. According to Émile Vuillermoz, Ravel never had any real affinity with opera because his universe was thoroughly instrumental: “Ravel’s orchestra was his theatre in which all the instruments became actors”. This is very much what seems to be happening in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, in which the characters are objects that come to life whilst in the orchestra, other objects respond to them, objects used like strange musical instruments: a cheese grater and rattles accompany the dance of the teapot, the clacking of the pages of a wooden book beat out the rhythm in the Arithmetic lesson, etc. onomatopoeiae, animal cries, games with syllables, an absurd mixture of French and English... Also used as an instrument for its immediate effect rather than for conveying meaning, language becomes childish babbling.

But on a more fundamental level, the decision to adopt the child’s point of view can be felt in the musical discourse itself. As Roland-Manuel so aptly put it, “the vehemence of drama is forbidden throughout, doubtless because before it subjugates the crowd, it tends to enslave the dramatist and Ravel, determined to dominate his subject, cannot allow himself to be superceded by it.” In other words, Ravel has adopted the autistic attitude of the child in the story, preoccupied as he is entirely by his inner world and careless of the consequences of his actions: thence the apparent simplification of his language, its disjointed character and the absence of development. “By finally repudiating thematic construction and fragmenting the continuity of the recitative, Ravel succeeds in liberating his music from the elements of subjectivity that it still tolerated. We see here Ravel furiously impatient to get away from Ravel or to get the better of him”. This is none other than the attitude of a man who wants to take off his mask, to get away from himself and to plunge back into childhood, with little respect for convention.

For even “in town”, with regard to L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Ravel displayed an attitude that was unpredictable and capricious. Shortly before the opening night, he came across his friend Sergei Diaghilev whose Russian Ballet was to dance in the production, and refused to shake his hand: a rather puerile tiff that almost jeopardised the performances of the work, as Diaghilev instantly threatened to cancel the participation of his company. We know that Ravel became distant towards Colette as soon as his work was finished: the two artists never saw each other again and Colette was vexed when, in 1925, she saw the score of L’Enfant et les sortilèges appear with no mention of her name. Circumstances allowed Ravel for the first time to compose an operatic work full of sincerity and in the image of what he then was: even if it made him resemble the stubborn child in the tale, he was not going to let himself be hampered by compromise.

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