Once Upon a Tempo
by Maureen Friel

Girls at the Piano by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1892
Fairy tales have famously inspired many works of classical music, most notably ballets such as Tchaichovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Cinderella. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes have also inspired (or borrowed tunes from) works for piano and orchestra as well. Today I thought I would share some of these perhaps less well-known pieces.

Ma mère l'oye

The title of Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l'oye means "My Mother Goose" in English, but the work is based on fairy tales, not nursery rhymes. (In France, Mother Goose is most famously associated with Charles Perrault's collection of classic fairy tales.) Ravel originally composed Ma mère l'oye as a piano duet for Mimie and Jean, the two small children of Ravel's friends Cyprian and Ida Godebski. Three of the fairy tales Ravel chose to include are still familiar to English-speaking children today: "Sleeping Beauty," "Tom Thumb," and "Beauty and the Beast." A fourth, "Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodas," represents Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy's "The Green Serpent," a story about a princess who is cursed to be ugly, and a king who is trapped in the form of a winged snake or dragon.

Lyric Pieces

Several of Edvard Grieg's short Lyric Pieces for piano have fairy tale themes, including "Alfesdans," or Elf Dance (Book I, No. 4), "Trolltog," or March of the Trolls (Book V, No. 3), and "Once Upon a Time" and "Småtroll," or Puck, both from Book X (No. 1 and No. 3). Unlike most of the other pieces I've shared, Grieg's works seem to be inspired not by specific stories, but by fairy tales in general. Children might enjoy drawing or writing their own stories to illustrate Grieg's music.


Although Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals is quite well known, I wanted to include "Fossils" here for its playful use of nursery songs--musical "dinosaurs," according to Saint-Saëns! English-speaking children will likely recognize the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The French nursery rhymes "Au clair de la lune" and "J'ai du bon tobac" are also featured. In the 1940s, Ogden Nash contributed some rhymes of his own to the entire Carnival of the Animals suite; many performances now include readings of Nash's poems.

Twelve Variations in C Major on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman"

This work by Mozart is based on a French ballad. Although the ballad itself is not appropriate for children, the melody was appropriated for children as the familiar tune of several nursery rhymes, including "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "The Alphabet Song."