Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

John Browning - RavelAs a child, I was fascinated by the cover art of this record from my parents’ LP collection, as well as by the musical works on the disc, including Gaspard de la Nuit. Especially Ondine. 

Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841 )

…I thought I heard a vague harmony enchant my slumber and, near me, radiating, a identical murmur like the interrupted songs of a sad and tender voice.
– C. Brugnot (The Two Spirits)

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
It is I, Ondine, spirit of the water,
who brushes these drops,
The water on the resonant panes of your windows,
lit by the gloomy rays of the moon.
And here, in a gown of watered silk,
gazing from my chateau terrace,
I contemplate the beautiful starry night
and the restless sleeping lake.

“The waves are my sisters, swimming the paths
which wander towards my palace…
The walls are at the bottom of the lake,
in a fluid structure of earth and fire and air.

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
My father strikes the water with an alder branch,
My sisters caress the grass with arms of white foam,
lift the water lilies, move the rushes,
and tease the bearded willow which casts its line,
baited with leaves, into the darting water.”

When she had breathed her song, she begged me –
begged me – to put her ring on my finger;
to be her husband and sink with her down –
down to her drowned palace
and be king of all the lakes.
I told her I loved a mortal woman.
Abashed and vexed, she dissolved into tears and laughter;
vanished in a scatter of rain –
white streams across the dark night
of my window.

In 2012 I wrote  about Debussy’s Ondine, who frolics and splashes about in the water, whereas Ravel’s Ondine has deadly intent as she tries to seduce a mortal to follow her to a watery grave. ‘Ecoute, écoute! C’est moi, c’est Ondine…’ she sings, in a beguiling LH melody, interwoven within a shimmering, moonlit RH accompaniment in a cat’s cradle of considerable technical difficulty. Clever Ravel; it is mainly the RH which has the challenging repeated-chords-plus-rotation figure, and later on an alarming sequence of double notes. When the RH has the melodic material, the LH is usually occupied with arpeggio-based figuration. It all needs lightness and dexterity, control, strength when required, passion and imagination.

Here is Martha Argerich –

And then, Le Gibet.  A corpse hangs from a gallows, reddened by the light of the setting sun. A bell tolls, on the same note throughout, amidst a texture which constantly changes. Remarkable pianistic writing.

Richter –

Finally, Scarbo. Malevolent, menacing, diabolical, a night fiend who, at midnight by the light of the moon, scratches at the bed-curtains, scampers about the room, grows to a huge size  – and disappears. Not a piece for the faint-hearted; Ravel intended this piece to surpass Balakirev’s Islamey in difficulty, and succeeded. The passages involving RH consecutive seconds are notorious, but none of it is easy, except perhaps the first three notes.

Here is Pogorelich performing the entire work, with the score added –

This entry was posted in Composers, Nocturne - A Little Night Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

  1. Bill McGann says:

    Thank you for this. When I was a boy of 13 I discovered the Gina Bachauer/John Gielgud recording in the 99-cent box at a Thrifty Drug Store. I bought it with my newsboy money and many decades later, it is still my favorite recording.

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