Maurice Ravel often remarked on the kinship he felt with children. When he met artist Cyprian Godebski in 1904, he also quickly befriended Godebski's two young children, Mimie and Jean, for whom he wrote a set of five simple pieces for piano, four hands, based on several of their favorite fairy tales, including some from Charles Perrault's collection of Mother Goose stories. The Mother Goose Suite proved to be too difficult for them to play, so the first public performance, in Paris on April 20, 1910, featured Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony (themselves both under age 10).
Several months later, Ravel orchestrated the five pieces, and in 1911 he added another scene along with a prelude and interludes at the request of the impresario Jacques Rouché, who thought the music might work well as a ballet. The ballet, with a scenario by Ravel, was first performed in Paris on January 28, 1912.
A gentle fanfare opens the work and dominates the opening Prelude. A crescendo leads into the first tableau, "Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene," which depicts the spinning of an old woman working at her wheel. Princess Florine, the Sleeping Beauty, pricks her finger on the spindle and falls asleep. She sleepwalks, accompanied by two guards assigned her by a Good Fairy (the old woman transformed) in the second tableau, "Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods." In "Conversations of Beauty and the Beast," Beauty accepts Beast's marriage proposal, and with a harp glissando and a triangle stroke Beast changes into a handsome prince.
Tom Thumb appears in the fourth tableau, "Hop o' My Thumb." The oboe plays Tom, who is wandering in the woods, dropping bread crumbs behind him to help him find his way out. But birds, heard in trills and harmonics in the violins and woodwinds, eat them up. A pentatonic tune heralds "Laideronnette, Princess of the Pagodas," in which a wicked witch has turned a princess into an Ugly Little Girl. The Girl meets a serpent, and they travel to the country of the Pagodas, tiny people with bodies made of jewels. Tuned percussion evokes the Oriental setting as the Pagodas play for the Girl on instruments made of nutshells. Ultimately the serpent is transformed into his original form as King of the Pagodas, the Girl becomes a princess again, and the two marry. In the concluding "The Fairy Garden," the Prince and Princess Charming are blessed and sent away by the Good Fairy to live happily ever after. The music begins quietly and prettily, builds in a long crescendo, and wedding bells are hinted at in the powerful climax.