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Gaspard de la nuit

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Gaspard de la nuit

Ravel’s duality is nowhere more vividly exemplified than in the two keyboard works of 1908. Ma Mère L’Oye for the piano, 4 hands, and Gaspard de la nuit. Le jardin féerique, the final movement of Ma Mère L’Oye, is the symbol of Ravel’s ideal world which reaches its apotheosis in the final scene of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Gaspard de la nuit is, for me, the greatest Decadent work of art, the acme of artistically ’rendered sensation’ - It takes its inspiration and title from a collection of prose poems by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841), to which Ravel had been introduced by Ricardo Viñes. Like his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, Bertrand was obsessed with the world of the supernatural Gaspard de la nuit is a nickname for the Devil and thus was one of the cult figures of the fashionable Satanism of the Symbolist artists. Such literary inspiration is very ’romantic’, very Listian, but even though the three poems chosen by Ravel are reproduced here, as they are in the score, there is no literal following of the ’story-line’. Ondine, in fact, would seem to have been prompted as much by Brugnot’s epigram as by Bertrand’s poem. Technically it is inspired to an extraordinary degree by Liszt. I’m not going to give you a bar-by-bar account but this is a work utterly suffused with Lisztian minutiae. Ondine suggests Huysmans’ description of Gustave Moreau’s Salome: ’la déité symbolique de I’indestructible Luxure ... la Beaute maudite’ - ’the symbolic incarnation of L t... the accursed Beauty.’ Note the incredible moment at the end of the piece, after all the ’batteries of alluring sense’, where the vague harmony finally dissolves into pure C sharp major and the enticement is over. In Le Gibet grim desolation is squarely confronted and the bell which tolls, unchanged, from start to finish forces the listener to confront it. Le Gibet is one of the most riveting artistic embodiments of that late 19th century syndrome ’ennui’, and what does the rivetting are the repeated B flats insidiously gnawing away. ’Ennui’ had its self-indulgent side, but notice here how, immediately after the more ’expanded’ tune, the desolation returns via the lowest piano tam-tam. The tolling bell acts as an ostinato back-drop against which to deploy bizarre harmonic colours; these are themselves ’irradiated’ tonally by the B flats as well as ’fixed’ rhythmically - in other words the bell is both a ’rhythm’ and an ’atmosphere’. The deliberate monotony of this combined with the direction to use the una corda pedal throughout apparently caused the faithful Ricardo Viñes for once to have misgivings and he and Ravel seriously fell out over it. In Scarbo Ravel set out quite deliberately to write the most difficult piano piece ever, something more difficult than Liszt or than Balakirev’s Islarney. It is as though, by piling up such terrors for the pianist, he would inculcate feelings of terror in the listener. Scarbo is a very malignant piece, dark, relentless, and yet, like everything in this magnificent work, lifted to a pitch of exaltation that assures its status as a masterpiece, perhaps the masterpiece of 20th century piano music.

Paul Crossley

The three poems which inspired Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. French original followed by English translation.

Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841)

Gaspard de la nuit:

Ondine

Je croyais entendre

Une vague harmonie enchanter mon sommeil,

Et près de moi s’épandre un murmure pareil

Aux chants entrecoupés d’une voix triste et tendre.

Ch. Brugnot - Les deux Génies.

 

-Ecoute! – Ecoute – C’est moi, c’est Ondine

qui frôle de ces gouttes d’eau les losanges sonores

de ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la

lune; et voici, en robe de moire, la châtelaine

qui contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et

le beau lac endormi.

 

Chacque flot est un ondine qui nage dans le courant,

chaque courant est un sentier qui serpente vers mon

palais, et mon palais est bâti fluide, au fond du lac,

dans le triangle du feu, de la terre et de l’air.

 

Ecoute! – Ecoute! Mon père bat l’eau

coassante d’une branche d’aulne verte, et mes soeurs

caressant de leurs bras d’ecume les fraîches îles

d’herbes, de nénuphars et de glaîeuls, ou se moquent

de saule caduc et barbu et qui pêche a la ligne.

 

Sa chanson murmurée, elle me supplia de recevoir

son anneau à mon doigt, pour ètre l’èpoux d’une

Ondine, et de visiter avec elle son palais, pour être

le roi des lacs.

 

Et comme je luis répondais qui j’amais une mortelle,

boudeuse et dépitée, elle pleura quelques larmes,

poussa un éclat de rire, et s’èvanouit en giboulées qui

ruisselérent blanches le long de mes vitraux bleus.

 

Le Gibet

Que vois-je remuer autour de ce Gibet? - Faust.

 

Ah! ce que j’entends, serait-ce la bise nocturne qui

glapit, ou le pendu qui pousse un soupir sur la

fourche patibulaire?

 

Serait-ce quelque grillon qui chante tapi dans la

mousse et le lierre stérile dont par pitié se chausse

le bois?

 

Serait-ce quelque mouche en chasse sonnant du cor au

tour de ces oreilles sourdes à la fanfare des hallali?

 

Serait-ce quelque escarbot qui cueille en son vol

inégal un cheveu sanglant à son crâne chauve?

 

Ou bien serait-ce quelque araignée qui brode une demi-

aune de mousseline pour cravate à col étranglé?

 

C’est la cloche qui tinte aux murs d’une ville sous

l’horizon, et la caracasse d’un pendu-que rougit le

soleil couchant.

 

Scarbo

Il regarde sous le lit, dans la

cheminée, dans le bahut; - personne, il ne put

comprende par où il s’était introduit, par où il

s’était evade. - Hoffmann - Contes nocturnes.

 

Oh! Que de fois je l’ai entendu et vu, Scarbo,

lorsqu’à minuit la lune brille dans le ciel comme un

écu d’argent sur une bannière d’azur semée

d’abeilles d’or!

 

Que de fois j’ai entendu bourdonner son rire dans

l’ombre de mon alcôve, et grincer son ongle sur la

soie des courtines de mon lit!

 

Que de fois je l’ai vu descendre du plancher,

pirouetter sur un pied et rouler par la chambre

comme le fuseau tombe de la quenouille d’une

sorcière!

 

Le croyais-je alors évanoui? Le nain grandissait

entre la lune et moi comme le clocher d’une

cathédrale gothique, un grelot d’or en branle à son

bonnet pointu!

 

Mais bientôt son corps bleuissait, diaphane comme

la circe d’une bougie, son visage blémissait comme

la circe d’un lumignon, - et soudain ils s’éteignait.

 

Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841)

Gaspard de la nuit:

Ondine

…I thought I heard

A vague harmony haunting my sleep,

A murmur spreading about me

Interspersed with songs of a sad and tender voice

Ch. Brugnot - Les deux Génies.

 

’Listen! Listen! It is I. It is Ondine

brushing with drops of water the resonant lozenges

of your window illuminated by the gloomy rays of the moon;

Behold too, the Chatelaine in watered-silk gown

Admiring from her balcony, the beautiful starlit night

And the beautiful sleeping lake.

 

Each wave is a water-sprite swimming in the current,

Each current a pathway snaking towards my palace,

My palace full of fluid, built at the bottom of the lake,

In a triangle of fire, earth and air.

 

Listen! Listen! My father beats the croaking water

With a green alder branch,

Whilst my sisters, with arms of foam,

Caress the cool islands of grass, of water-lilies,

And of gladioli, or mock the willow,

Bearded and decaying as he fishes.’

 

Her song thus murmured,

She implored me to have her ring on my finger,

So as to be husband to an Ondine,

To be able to accompany her to her palace

And be king of the lakes.

 

When I answered that I loved a mortal,

Sulky and put out, she shed a few tears,

Burst out laughing, and vanished in spray

Which trickled, clear down the length of my

Blue stained glass.

 

The Gallows

What do I see stirring round this gallows? - Faust

 

Ah! What do I hear?

Could it be the night wind howling,

Or the hanged man heaving a sigh

On the forked gibbet?

 

Could it be some cricket singing,

Crouched in the moss and sterile ice

With which, out of pity, the wood is shod?

 

Could it be some fly a-hunting,

Sounding the horn about those ears

Deaf to the fanfare of the kill?

 

Could it be some beetle who,

In his uneven flight, plucks a bloody hair

From his bald pate?

 

Or might it be some spider,

Embroidering a half-ell of muslin

As a cravat for that strangled neck?

 

It is the bell which tolls

At the walls of a town below the horizon,

As the carcass of a hanged man reddens

In the setting sun.

 

Scarbo

He looked under the bed, in the fireplace, in the cupboard - no-one.

He could not understand where he was getting in, nor how he was escaping.

                                                                 Hoffmann - Contes nocturnes.

Oh! How many times have I heard and seen him -

Scarbo - at midnight when the moon shines in the sky

Like a silver coin on an azure banner studded with gold bees?

 

How many times have I heard his laughter

Buzzing in the shadow of my alcove,

And his nail grating on the silk of my bed curtains?

 

How many times have I seen him come down from the rafters,

Pirouette on one foot and role across the room

Like the bobbin fallen from the distaff of a witch?

 

Was I then to believe him vanished?

 

The dwarf would grow bigger between the moon and me

Like the steeple of a Gothic cathedral,

A little gold bell swinging on his pointed cap.

 

Presently his body would become blue like the wax of a candle,

His face wan like the wax of a taper

And all of a sudden he would snuff out.


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