Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Musical Celebration of the Fairy Garden, Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, and More in Mother Goose

Mamun Srizon

My mother, having been a librarian for the Boston Public Library in addition to being a newspaper columnist, believed in having lots and lots of books around the house. I had a three-shelf bookcase in my nursery that was filled with wonderful adventures for my imagination. There were books of poetry and fairy tales, as well as counting books and books of photographs of baby animals learning to become grownups. While the book itself is long gone, however, I still remember the rhymes and pictures from my favorite Mother Goose book. I looked all over for that same book when my son was born. I couldn’t find the exact one from my memory, but my baby boy had three different hardback versions (that I’ve saved for my “someday grandchildren”).

National Mother Goose Day is celebrated on May 1. Was she a real woman who told sweet stories and created nursery rhymes for her own children or grandchildren? Was she a completely invented person (or goose)? Someone who was given a fun name for compiling songs to quiet fussy babies? Was she the “Mother” Mary Goose whose gravestone is found in Boston’s Granary Burial Ground? Or maybe she or he was a European storyteller whose stories and rhymes have delighted centuries of children across the continents?

We may never know for sure who Mother Goose was, or if a solo inventor of the stories actually ever even existed. We do know that the woman buried in 1690 in the historical graveyard in Boston, Mary Goose, was not the “real” Mother Goose of literary fame, even though her gravestone has been a major tourist attraction, especially since a push for more tourists in the 1950s. More on that story below.

Whoever the real Mother Goose was, however, she or he did inspire a piece of music in “her” honor: Maurice Ravel’s 1910 suite for piano four-hands. He dedicated Ma mère l’oye (literally translated as “My Mother the Goose”) to the two young children of a sculptor-friend. The five-movement suite tells five of Mother Goose’s stories in music. Ravel focused on the stories of “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Tom Thumb,” “The Empress of the Pagodas,” “The Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Fairy Garden.” According to Wikipedia, no one knows who wrote the original story of “The Fairy Garden,” but none of the other 4 stories were actually credited to a Mother Goose:

Sleeping Beauty and Little Tom Thumb are based on the tales of Charles Perrault, while Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas is inspired by a tale (The Green Serpent) by Perrault's ‘rival’ Madame d'Aulnoy. Beauty and the Beast is based upon the version by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. The origin of The Fairy Garden is not entirely known.”

Here are pianists Marta Argerich and Eduardo Delgado playing Ravel’s original four-hand version in a concert in Argentina.

An interesting note is that the piece went through a few iterations. As I mentioned, Ravel first envisioned it for piano four-hands. Within a year, it was transcribed by a friend of his for solo piano, and in 1912 Ravel orchestrated the piece as a ballet. The five original fairy tale pieces were retained, but Ravel’s ballet version added a prelude, an opening scene, and four interludes to connect the individual stories. Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in the full ballet.

Regardless of who the original storyteller was, Ravel’s piano suite and ballet versions delight the imaginations of children and adults alike, over 110 years later. Happy National Mother Goose Day!

CODA:  So, what’s the story about the “Boston” Mother Goose and her connection to the headstone in the Old Granary Burial Ground? This article from Celebrate Boston helps clear up some misconceptions!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.