skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Gaspard de la nuit

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Fri., Jan. 23, 2004, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Unlike such composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, Ravel significantly enriched the literature of the piano without being a virtuoso pianist himself. Gaspard de la nuit, composed in 1908, is at once the most demanding and the most revolutionary of his keyboard works, and altogether the most remarkable. The title identifies the inspiration for the work: Gaspard de la nuit was a book by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841, actually named Louis Bertrand) which contained verses, prose-poems and drawings relating to fantasies of imps, devils, nymphs, ill-fated lovers, and death and nightmares. In his preface to the book, written about 1830 and published posthumously in 1842, Bernard identified "Gaspard de la nuit” as the pseudonym taken by Satan, who had given him the poems to illustrate various literary principles. Ravel wrote that his own Gaspard "has been the very devil to write, which is only reasonable since He is the author of the poems.” It is also the very devil to play , because Ravel determined that it should be. He stated that in composing it he had as one of his objectives simply creating greater challenges for the pianist than Balakirev had done in his "Oriental fantasy” Islamey , he went beyond that example, and beyond the Mephisto Waltz of Liszt, to achieve his extraordinary mixture of superhuman technical demands and sheer poetic evocativeness.

Ravel selected three of Bertrand's fantasies as patterns for musical treatment, and had the texts printed in the score. He dedicated each of the three pieces to a different pianist, while a fourth, his boyhood friend Ricardo Viñes, gave the first performance, on January 9, 1909. The three pieces and their accompanying texts (as translated) are:

I. O NDINE , dedicated to Harold Bauer

"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 drops run down the glass, each with a point of moonlight for its heart, and there on her castle's terrace, her silks rustling like leaves, a woman contemplates the stars and the sky and the restless lake. "The waves are my sisters, swimming in paths that wander toward my home, the walls of water poised between earth, air and fire. Listen! My father strikes the water with an alder branch. My sisters clasp the green islands in arms of white foam; they life the water lilies and move the rushes or tease the ancient willow casting its line of leaves in the scampering water.”When she had breathed her song, she begged me to put her ring on my finger, to be her husband and sink down with her to her submerged castle and be king of all the lakes. I told her I loved a mortal woman. Saddened and angry, she dissolved in tears and laughter, vanished in the rain, in streams of white across the dark night of my window.

II. L E G IBET , dedicated to Jean Marnold

What is this uneasy sound in the dusk? Is it the gasp of the winter wind, or did the hanged man on the gallows [the gibbet] give out a sigh? Was it a frog that croaked down there by the stagnant pond, or the creaking fingers of ivy strangling the tree? Or the buzz of a fly hunting after raw flesh, knocking against those ears which are deaf to the tolling bell? Or the winged beetle plucking a blood-soaked hair from the skull? Or the swing of the spider knitting a scarf gray as the dust, a shroud for the broken neck? The clock strikes the hour. The walls of the town harden against the sky. The carcass of a hanged man glows in the dying sunlight.

III. S CARBO , dedicated to Rudolph Ganz

I have heard him and seen him again and again, Scarbo the Dwarf. In the dead of night, when the moon was a silver mask on a dark wall, the stars a swarm of bees with stings of pircing light; heard his laugh in a dark corner, and the grate of his nails on the counterpane. I've seen him drop from the ceiling, twirl and roll across the floor like a spindle dropped by a dark enchantress at her wheel. Did I think he had vanished? No. He rose up between me and the moon, high and narrow as a Gothic steeple, a great bell swaying in his head. And then his form utterly changed—now blue and transparent as candlewax, his face as pale as the molten drippings—and into the dark he's gone...

While most of Ravel's orchestral works are his own arrangements of music he composed originally for piano (one can't call them "transcriptions,” as he more or less composed them anew in orchestral terms), he never attempted an orchestration of Gaspard de la nuit, very likely because he regarded this work as being too intrinsically pianistic in its character for such treatment. Most musicians tended to agree with that notion—until 1990, when the composer Marius Constant brought out the version we hear this evening.

Constant, born in Bucharest on February 7, 1925, left after his graduation from the conservatory there in 1944 and has lived in Paris since then. He studied composition with his compatriot George Enescu and with Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger, and conducting with Jean Fournet. In 1956 he became musical director of Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, and two years later the same year his most ambitious orchestral composition up to that time, the 24 Preludes for Orchestra, was given its premiere by the Orchestre National de l'ORTF under Leonard Bernstein, to whom Constant dedicated that work. Since then he has been constantly active as a composer, a conductor and general activist for contemporary music. Among his compositions are the ballets Cyrano de Bergerac and In Praise of Folly and, more recently, the orchestral piece Hämeenlinna, in observance of the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius. Some 40 years ago Constant also composed music for the television series The Twilight Zone.

Ravel felt he had achieved a "Russian” character in his celebrated orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition; some scholars have disputed that claim, while still greatly admiring his achievement in its own right. Marius Constant, in introducing his orchestral version of Gaspard de la nuit , advised that he had in general followed Ravel's own orchestral style, as exemplified in La Valse, and had also taken some cues from Ravel's remarks to pianists with whom he discussed what he had in mind in the way of performance of his Gaspard. Marguerite Long, who was very close to Ravel, reported that he urged another celebrated interpreter of his keyboard works, Vlado Perlemuter, to play the opening measure of Scarbo "like a bassoon,” and next few measures "like a drum,” and expanded on other passages with references to "nasal trumpets,” percussion, brass bands, castanets and xylophone. At the same time, Constant pointed out that he had "introduced new instrumental combinations and attempted to enlarge the sound-spectrum by "ignoring some of the taboos still in force in the various handbooks on orchestration.” In other words, what he has given us in this score, while at all times respectful of Ravel, is not an imitation of Ravel but has a good deal of Marius Constant in it; and that, after all, is more in line with the thinking on Ravel's part that produced the extraordinary composite work that is the "standard” orchestral Pictures at an Exposition— or, to cite a likeness closer to home, the shorter and lighter piece our own William Schuman referred to as "the Ives/Schuman Variations."