I have loved this beautiful piece since I first heard it while studying impressionist composers during my A-level Music course. It has such a magical and playful sound that just makes me smile. I hope it makes you smile too!
Those of you who know me well, will know I love a good fairy-tale so the story behind this piece adds an extra bit of sparkle for me (continue reading below the piece link if you want to find out more about it).
To give the piece it's full title Laideronette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas) was written by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1910 and is the 3rd of five pieces which form the Ma Mere l'Oye (Mother Goose) Suite. Ravel originally wrote the piece as a piano duet for two of his students, Mimi and Jean Godebski (to whom the piece is dedicated), who where the children of his friends Cipa and Ida Godebski.
Ravel orchestrated the suite in 1911 and later that same year expanded it into a ballet, which premiered in 1912 at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris.
Ravel adored children and the fantastical worlds that formed their stories and play. He therefore sought to write piano music that children would enjoy playing and also reflect their childhood world. The suite is subtitled 'Cinq Pièces enfantines' (five childlike pieces) and the stories behind it draw on the fairy-tales of Perrault, which were well known in Ravel's time.
Laideronette tells the tale of a Chinese princess who has been cursed by an evil fairy who transforms her into an ugly little girl. Laideronette exiles herself from her family and her home land and wanders for years with her only companion, an equally ugly green serpent. During their wanderings together they are shipwrecked on a island of Pagodas (little porcelain people - which were popular figurines in French homes at the time the piece was written) who take her as their Empress. Over time she falls in love with the serpent and when they marry the curse is lifted, transforming her into a beautiful princess and the serpent into a handsome prince. As in all good fairy tales, they live happily ever after on the island of Pagodas.
Ravel makes use of the pentatonic scale (a musical scale with five notes per octave) which characterise traditional oriental music as well as Indonesian Gamelan-esque rhythmic patterns to give the piece a quasi-Chinese feel.
Known as a master of orchestration, Ravel's choice of instruments further amplifies the oriental feel through his use of birdlike flute motifs and percussion.