Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Maurice Ravel

Though competent at the piano, Ravel was no virtuoso; so, when he set out to compose a work for the instrument that would be, in his own words, "more difficult than [Balakirev's] Islamey," he drew heavily on the brilliant pianistic style of Franz Liszt to fulfill his ambition. The resulting three-part suite, Gaspard de la nuit (1908), forever changed the technical landscape of keyboard music. Perhaps pianist Alfred Cortot put it best when he called the work "one of the most extraordinary examples of instrumental ingenuity which the industry of composers has ever produced."

Gaspard de la nuit, subtitled "Three Poems after Aloysius Bertrand," takes as its inspiration Bertrand's same-titled 1842 collection of medieval tales, which the author claimed were whispered to him in the night by the devil, Gaspard. Each of the pieces in Ravel's suite is prefaced by one of the poems; no doubt the same macabre streak that led Ravel to spend many nights absorbed in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe is also responsible for the composer's powerful attraction to Bertrand's rather dark work. Gaspard was premiered in January 1909 by pianist Ricardo Viñes, who had introduced Ravel to Bertrand's work.

Each of the three pieces of the suite, "Ondine," "Le Gibet," and "Scarbo," presents not only an individual assortment of pianistic demands but also a unique musical language and narrative vision. In the first piece Ravel undertakes the portrayal of the water nymph Ondine's seduction of a mortal man. Shimmering C sharp major figuration soon becomes the background for a transparent melodic strand marked très doux et très expressif (very soft and expressive). The fluid background pauses only once during "Ondine" -- for a brief pianissimo Très lent that precedes the final, quicksilver cadenza.

"Le Gibet" (The Gibbet) is a musical horror story of such textural density that Ravel notated nearly all of the piece on three staves. An extract from the preface of the corresponding poem provides some idea of the musical atmosphere: "It is the bell sounding from the walls of a city far away below the horizon, and the carcass of a dead man hanging from a gibbet, reddened by the setting sun." Ravel's "bells" are the slightly irregularly grouped B flats that sound continuously throughout the piece, around which the composer weaves music of total psychological suspense. The dynamic never exceeds piano, and Ravel demands that the performer play "without expression" for the last portion of the piece.

"Scarbo" is 19 pages of some of the most frightful digital difficulties ever devised. Scarbo himself is a somewhat malicious night-dwarf who comes, laughing, to horrify, and then disappears without a trace. Here Ravel places the greatest emphasis on his singular sense of rhythm; witness the perfectly placed pauses throughout. Rapid repeated notes, wild arpeggiations, and sudden shifts of texture and dynamics are among the hurdles pianists must overcome; a famous passage in parallel seconds seems to owe its existence to the composer's own peculiarly double-jointed thumb, and is therefore quite challenging for those without such a physical anomaly. After a tremendous triple-fortissimo climax, the music dissolves into impish pianissimo thirty-second notes.

-- Blair Johnston