One thing that is remarkable about orchestral music is its ability to create sounds that are perfectly suited to a story. A great example is Berg’s opera Wozzeck, where the atonal music is both beautiful and twisted, perfectly expressing the madness and alienation that is present in the main characters.
While Berg used one new style to capture specific over arcing themes, Maurice Ravel uses many different styles and techniques in L’Enfant et les sortilèges to capture the different characters that pop up in this Alice-in-Wonderland-esque story.
The piece begins with two oboes playing a pentatonic pitch group in open 4ths and 5ths. This simple tune is something that a child could be play on a recorder, masterfully representing the simplicity and neutrality of the 7-9 year old main character with so many choices ahead of them. The creaky old armchair dances a sarabande, the shepherds and shepherdesses from the wall paper sing some old pastoral music with baroque undertones. There is a slow, sad waltz that signifies a dragonfly looking for its mate, and a power chord driven storm scene, among many others.
This sequence comes from a charming ragtime tune that is first sung by the Chinese Cup. While the cup is dancing a foxtrot with the Wedgewood Teapot, it sings out the first earworm worthy melody of the opera. Immediately following the vocal line is a soloistic echo in the principal trombone.
The part is marked Molto Espressivo and Vibrer avec la coulisse, so make sure to bring the expression and “vibrate with the slide” if you have one. I found the most vibrato success if I saved it for notes worth at least two beats and used the shorter notes to focus on phrasing and creating a musical line. Establish a strong, dancing groove before you begin so you can resist the urge to slow down.
Follow the articulation markings closely and sing out! This section is over marked in the orchestra, so you will most likely need to be a strong singing mezzo forte to be heard clearly.
Tenor Trombonists, use the bass/tenor/alto clef parts to build up to the written octave and the C Treble Clef part to explore the stratosphere.
Keng-ca-fou, Mah-jong (The Chinese Cup) song starts at 8:48 in the video below.
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