El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show) dramatizes an episode in the Cervantes novel Don Quixote, a work that is quintessentially Spanish, a natural source for a composer whose own inspiration was derived from Spanish traditions. The work had its first performance in Seville at a concert of the Sociedad Sevillana de Conciertos on 23rd March 1923, followed by the first private staging for the dedicatee, Princess Edmond de Polignac, in Paris on 25th June, with a public concert performance in Paris five months later. This piece for puppets involves two groups, the smaller puppets of Master Peter's show, representing Charlemagne, Don Gayferos, Don Roland, Melisendra, King Marsilio and the enamoured Moor, with heralds, knights, soldiers, executioners and Moors. The audience and puppeteers, with puppets of larger size, include Don Quixote, Master Peter, the boy, Sancho Panza, the inn-keeper, the scholar, a page and the man with lances and halberds. The first three of these have vocal parts.
The voice of Don Quixote is provided by a bass or baritone, that of Master Peter by a tenor and that of the boy, El Trujaman (the story-teller, dragoman, or, in the original Turkish, tercuman), by a boy treble or, if this is not possible, by a woman's voice that may reproduce something of the roughness of a boy shouting in the street. The other puppets, both on stage and in the audience, are silent. The instrumentation includes, with the chamber orchestra, an important part for harpsichord, played at the first Paris performance by Wanda Landowska.
In the novel by Cervantes Don Quixote, a simple country gentleman, has been inspired by his reading of romances, tales of the adventures of knights errant of old, to imitate their example and go out in search of wrongs to right. He is accompanied by Sancho Panza, a villager now appointed squire to the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. Throughout the novel Don Quixote is misled by his imagination, tilting at windmills that he sees as giants, attacking a flock of sheep that he sees as a hostile army. In the episode of Master Peter's puppet show, Don Quixote mistakes the puppets of the story, one of knightly adventure, for heroes in need of his help. He intervenes to destroy the enemies of Don Gayferos and Melisendra, thinking to secure their escape from the pursuing Moors. In doing this he breaks the puppets, leaving Master Peter to do what he can with what is left of his business.
El Retablo de Maese Pedro opens with El Pregon (The Proclamation). The scene is an inn stable in La Mancha. Master Peter appears, ringing a bell, with a monkey on his shoulder.
He calls for attention. During the Sinfonia de Maese Pedro, the audience comes in, Don Quixote being bowed to a place in the front row, his long legs stretched in front of him or crossed during the following performance. Master Peter enters his booth and the boy comes in, carrying a wand, and begins the story of Don Gayferos, whose wife Melisendra, putative daughter of Charlemagne, has been taken prisoner by the Moorish King Marsilio.
Don Gayferos, however, remains idle, preoccupied with his games of chess. The scene is now revealed of the court of Charlemagne, where Don Gayferos is playing chess with Don Roland. The boy draws attention to Charlemagne himself, who is angry and urges Don Gayferos to action. The latter refuses the help of Roland and will set out himself to rescue Melisendra. The scene is acted after the narrative explanation, the two knights rising from their game as the Emperor enters to appropriately stately music and confronts Don Gayferos, striking him with his sceptre, before turning away. Left alone, the two knights quarrel and Don Gayferos storms out in anger. The boy now resumes his story, telling of the captive Melisendra in her tower of the Alcazar of Saragossa, thinking of her husband and Paris. A Moor approaches stealthily and kisses her: he is seen by King Marsilio and seized.
Princess Melisendra is seen leaning from her balcony, while King Marsilio is visible from time to time, walking along the outer gallery of the castle. The Moor approaches Melisendra and kisses her: she calls for help, tearing her hair, and the Moor is seized by the guards. The boy continues the story, telling how the Moor is taken through the streets to the town square, where he will be given two hundred blows, condemned almost as soon as the crime had been committed: he adds that the Moors have no due criminal process. Don Quixote takes exception to this and stands up to make his objection: Master Peter tells the boy to keep to the story, without adding his own embellishments. The puppeteer returns to his booth and Don Quixote sits down.
The scene of the Moor's punishment is acted, the blows of the executioners in time with the music. The Moor falls and is dragged away by the guards. The curtain closes again and the boy describes the approach of Don Gayferos.
Don Gayferos rides through the mountain passes of the Pyrenees. He is wrapped in a long cloak and carries a hunting-horn, which he blows now and again. The curtain closes again and the boy describes how Melisendra, at the window of her tower, talks to a stranger in the street below, asking him to ask in Paris for Don Gayferos: the knight reveals his identity and sets her on his horse, riding now to Paris once more.
The next scene is acted, with Melisendra on her balcony and Don Gayferos, his face covered by his cloak, approaching. they talk, Don Gayferos reveals himself, Melisendra descends and they ride away together.  The boy wishes them well, with happiness in lives as long as Nestor's, a comment that induces Master Peter to tell him to keep to the point.
The curtain then opens for the last time, showing King Marsilio summoning his guards, the boy pointing with his wand to the figures, as he tells the story. All the city is in turmoil, with bells ringing from the minarets. Don Quixote jumps up to object, since the Moors do not have church bells, but drums and shawms. Master Peter pokes his head out of the booth to tell Don Quixote not to be such a stickler for accuracy, since plays are always full of inaccuracies of this kind. Don Quixote agrees and sits down again, while the boy points out the figures now pursuing Don Gayferos and Melisendra, with trumpets and drums, about to catch the fugitives. This is too much for Don Quixote, who leaps up, drawing his sword and attacking the puppets in indignation, knocking some down, beheading others and narrowly missing Master Peter himself. The latter begs Don Quixote to stop, but cannot pacify him, who exults in his victory, declaring his name and his loyalty to the beautiful Dulcinea, his imagined lady, whom he now addresses, enraptured (Dulcinea del Toboso is, it may be recalled, a serving wench in a nearby inn and in no way shares Don Quixote's illusions). Don Quixote continues to extol his own exploit and those of the knights of old, while Master Peter can only stare in despair at the havoc wrought on his puppets.
Important: Cast subject to changes