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You're hearing a little from one of the most recorded pieces of modern classical music, Ravel's "Bolero," -- though the French composer, who was born today in 1875, might be a little surprised to hear it played on a toy piano. And hopefully delighted, since Ravel -- a small, dapper man who lived in a tiny house surrounded by a grove of dwarf trees -- never married or had children of his own, nevertheless felt a kind of soulful kinship with children. He wrote amusing, illustrated letters to the sons and daughters of his friends, and he composed some of our most hauntingly beautiful music for children or about the experiences of childhood.
For instance there's his "Ma Mere L'Oye," his Mother Goose suite, an appropriate subject for a French composer since the historical Mother Goose most probably was the mother of the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish Charlamagne. She was a country woman with large feet who was referred to (I'm sure behind her back) as "Goose-footed Bertha" which later became Mother Goose for short. But Ravel's musical celebration of Mother Goose is anything but coarse or heavy-footed, like the rhymes that most of us grew up on and that carry Mother Goose's name into the next millenium. Instead, Ravel's approach is refined, meditative, a Proustian work of revery.
Most important in Ravel's reflections on childhood is his 1925 opera, L'enfant et les Sortileges. It's based on a story by the French writer Colette about a little boy who throws the tantrum of all tantrums, sassing his mother, knocking dishes off the table, destroying his toys, literally tearing up the wallpaper and his books, which makes old man arithmetic appear to chastise him with an aria of fractions. Finally, though, there is hope for this little tyrant, who is exhausted by the emotional chaos he causes, and through this is transformed into a compassionate, tender child, whom even the animals can love again.
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Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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