RAVEL Maurice, Gaspard de la Nuit

Maurice Ravel completed Gaspard de la nuit on 8 September 1908, and the first performance took place on 9 January 1909, at the Salle Erard in Paris. The pianist was Ricardo Viñes, one of the most energetic advocates of new French and Spanish music, and a long-time friend of Ravel’s. Exact contemporaries, they were both members of Les Apaches, a group of like-minded artistic friends. While they were students, Viñes had introduced Ravel to the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand that was later to inspire Gaspard de la nuit. Gaspard refers to a Persian treasurer guarding the royal jewels at night. 


Betrand’s prose poems had been published in 1842 (a year after his death), and influenced later Symbolist poets, notably Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Ravel’s Gaspard, subtitled ‘three poems’, begins with Ondine, a dream-like depiction of a water sprite. Ravel’s music seems to mirror the strange beauty of the poem:  


Listen! … it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows, lit by the gloomy rays of the moon; and here in gown of watered silk, the mistress of the chateau gazes from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and sleeping lake. 


Le Gibet is a grim evocation of a corpse hanging from the gallows. A bell – incessant and obsessive – tolls throughout the piece, represented by repeated B flats, the first and last sounds we hear. 


Ravel once said his initial idea for Scarbo had been to ‘make a caricature of Romanticism’, but admitted that ‘perhaps it got the better of me.’ The result is music of dazzling originality. The poem depicts a goblin who darts in and out of the shadows, and Ravel’s piece mirrors this with quiet passages disturbed by sudden outbursts. The critic Vladimir Jankélévitch described Scarbo as ‘a fiendish encyclopedia of all the traps, obstacles and snares that a limitless imagination can devise for a pianist’s fingers.’ 

 (C) Nigel Simeone


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