A titan of the impressionistic period, Maurice Ravel composed a variety of music combining elements from the late Romantic era and the Modern era. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 14, and studied under the esteemed Gabriel Fauré. He remained in the Conservatoire until the age of 20, where he composed works such as Pavane pour une infante défunte, Sonatine, Jeux D’eau, and Miroirs. One of the last works he composed at the conservatory was Gaspard de la Nuit (1908). The suite has three movements, each based upon a poem from Gaspard de la Nuit by Aloysius Bertrand. The poems were said to be authored by the devil, and the nature of the suite reflects the dark, mysterious atmosphere. This suite is one of Ravel’s most difficult works, but it is found quite often as a virtuosic addition to the programs of the most courageous pianists.
“Listen! – Listen! – It is I, it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows lit by the gloomy rays of the moon…”
The first movement is of a siren-like water spirit, or an Undine, that sings to the observer in a dream to seduce him to visit her castle at the bottom of the lake. It has much similarity to two of Ravel’s other works featuring flowing, cascading passages - Jeux D’eau (1901) and Une barque sur l'océan (1905); however, Ondine is much more difficult. The primary technical difficulty is creating a sparkling and soft texture while preserving the melody and the counterintuitive tremolo-like pattern introduced at the beginning of the piece. The climax is also incredibly challenging, with both hands playing disjunct rhythms and notes spanning the entire keyboard. The piece ends in an explosion of water and anger, and returns to a quiet shimmering finish.
II. Le Gibet
“Ah! that which I hear, was it the north wind that screeches in the night, or the hanged one who utters a sigh on the fork of the gibbet?”
This second movement depicts a reddish setting sun in a desert, where the corpse of a hanged man on a gibbet stands out against the horizon. A bell tolls against the walls of a city in the far-off distance, and generates a deathly yet calm atmosphere. Although slow and contemplative, Le Gibet is not without technical challenges; the maintenance of the b-flat ostinato (representing the bell) throughout the whole piece, paired with crossings and melodies in both hands, gives pianists plenty of room for interpretation.
“But soon his body developed a bluish tint, translucent like the wax of a candle, his face blanched like melting wax – and suddenly his light went out.”
This third and final movement describes the nighttime mischief of a small fiendish goblin, flitting in and out of sight, making pirouettes, and overall creating a frightening and nightmarish scene for the observer in his bed. It is the height of difficulty in the standard repertoire, as Ravel wrote it intending to surpass Balakirev’s Islamey (which he succeeded in). With the extensive repeated notes in both hands and two intimidating climaxes, few pianists dare to perform this publicly.
Enjoy a performance of this suite by the renowned Ivo Pogorelich!