Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit

Ravel. Gaspard de la nuit. One of the giants of the piano repertoire, being written only in 1908, it’s crazy to think there are still approximately 50 people alive today that were born before this amazing work of art existed. “Listen! Do you know what you hear? Handfuls of rain that I’ve thrown against your window, thrown by me, Ondine, spirit of the water.”

The first of three piano compositions based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand, Ondine tells the dream-like story of a nymph singing to lure an outsider into her underwater kingdom. Both seductive and lethal, Ondine represents the allure of that whose beauty and promise belies a darker nature, much like the siren singing the lonely sailor to his watery grave. Ravel has captured this in glittering, enchanting piano arpeggios, which (much like Ondine herself) are so difficult that, when this piece was composed, it extended the classical piano technique. “What is this uneasy sound in the dusk? Is it the gasp of the winter wind, or did the hanged man on the gallows give out a sigh?” Le Gibet.

The middle composition in Ravel’s Bertrand poems triptych, it slices the opus in two, conjuring an image of a lone body hanging on the gallows. Meanwhile, a bell tolls from inside the walls of a far-off city, creating the deathly atmosphere that surrounds the observer. What is exceptional about this composition is that Ravel repeats the Bb octave ostinato throughout the whole piece, imitating the tolling of the bell that so sombrely characterizes the scene. “Now blue and transparent as candlewax, his face as pale as the molten drippings and into the dark he’s gone…”

The final composition in Ravel’s settings of Bertrand’s poems, Scarbo recalls the nightmarish mischief of the eponymous goblin. The sly fiend makes pirouettes, flitting in and out of the darkness, disappearing and suddenly reappearing. Accordingly, the piano part requires acrobatic athleticism, marking the high point in technical difficulty in the entire set. Ravel wrote that this composition “has been the very devil to write, which is only reasonable since He is the author of the poems.”