Gaspard of the Night by Ravel
When did Ravel compose Gaspard of the night and what inspired it?
In 1908, Maurice Ravel entered a world of sleeping princesses, magical gardens and supernatural spirits. Inspired by the stories of Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy, he begins to work on his piano duo My mother the goose. His five exquisite fairytale vignettes, dedicated to the children of his friends Mimi and Jean Godebski, take us from the hypnotic ‘Pavane de la Belle endormie’ to the vivid brilliance of ‘Le jardin férique’.
There could hardly be a more charming and innocent room. Yet that same year, Ravel’s thoughts also took a darker turn. Gaspard of the night was the result, devilishly hard solo piano work haunted by strange sprites, fiendish creatures and the specter of death.
GaspardThe three movements of add up to one of the most difficult piano works ever written. Ravel had told fellow composer Maurice Delage that he wanted to create something more stretching than Balakirev’s. Islamey, a notorious virtuoso piece which had established itself in the life of Parisian concerts in the 1880s and which was performed by his friend the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes. “Maybe I got a little carried away,” Ravel reflected.
The score itself confirms the anecdote, even if Ravel had a twinkle in his eye. Nowadays Gaspard remains a particularly demanding test for any pianist.
Yet, although the job requires keyboard magic that Liszt could have hesitated, in a successful performance, all these notes should serve the programmatic ideas. It’s not just a centerpiece. Indeed, Ravel’s inspiration was specifically poetic.
In September 1896, the composer borrowed a book from Viñes: Gaspard of the nightsubtitle Worthy and dusty stories of the Middle Ages. This collection of prose poems by French author Aloysius Bertrand was written in the 1830s and then published posthumously a decade later.
With 51 poems in six books, as well as 13 “detached pieces”, there were many sources, many of which appealed to Ravel and his love of the macabre. He chose three poems: ‘Ondine’, ‘Le gibet’ and ‘Scarbo’, each preceding their respective movements in the first published version of his cycle, as well as dedications to three different pianists: Harold Bauer, Jean Marnold and Rudolph Ganz . .
Bertrand’s visions inspired one of Ravel’s greatest works, described by pianist Alfred Cortot as “one of the most extraordinary examples of instrumental ingenuity ever produced”. Yet, curiously, Ravel himself was not a great pianist, unlike Beethoven (whose sonatas, to Ravel’s chagrin, were still all the rage in France), Schumann, ChopinLiszt and Rachmaninoffwho all had parallel performing careers.
While Ravel wasn’t terrible – he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, after all, and would play his My mother the goose in public – he was not up to the stakes of this new masterpiece. Mind you, he wasn’t happy with the way Viñes played Gaspard when it was created in 1909; Ravel never again let him give the first performance of one of his works.
What is Gaspard of the night on?
‘Ondine’ is the enigmatic opening movement (in luminous C sharp major), the legend of a water nymph who tries to trap a man. She declares her love for him, but when she is rejected, she disappears with a malicious laugh. Ravel had already explored aquatic effects in Water sports (1901) and in ‘A boat on the ocean’ by Mirrors (1905), and in Gaspard he pushes the idea even further.
From the impression of sparkling water emerges an otherworldly melody; one of Ravel’s innovations here is that melody and harmony become inseparable. “I thought I heard a vague harmony / bewitch my sleep / And near me came a whisper / Like songs interrupted by a sad and tender voice” read verses by Charles Brugnot The two geniuses which join Bertrand’s poem in the score.
The central movement of the almost sonata triptych is a remarkable exercise in atmosphere. A quote from Goethe Faust, ‘What do I see stirring around the gallows?’ agrees with Bertrand’s remarks: is the disturbing noise we hear the north wind, a cricket, a fly, a beetle, a spider? No, it’s the bell ringing for a hanged man, whose corpse lies on the gallows as the sky turns red in the setting sun. Octave B-flats echo throughout ‘Le Gibet”s dark E-flat minor, recalling the inexorable inevitability of death.
‘Scarbo’ takes us further into the night. This last number, in dark G sharp minor, is the portrait of an evil goblin, flying in and out of sight, hiding in the dark, casting shadows in the moonlight. Ravel accumulates challenges: repeated tremolo notes, jumps around the keyboard that must be perfectly regular, lightning-fast passages that must be executed in triple PPP, spooky chromatic scales in seconds. But then just as gently as Gaspard of the night begins, the music ends with a carefree flourish.
The best recordings of Gaspard of the night
Martha Argerich (piano)
German Grammophon 479 4883 (1974)
In a 1978 interview, Martha Argerich explained how she came to learn Gaspard of the night. The young Argentinian pianist was studying in Vienna with her idol Friedrich Gulda, who was beginning to get frustrated with the time she was taking to cover a Schubert sonata.
To incite him to action, he asks him to prepare the work of Schumann Abegg Variations and Ravel Gaspard of the night for the next lesson – in just five days. And she did. How did Argerich pull off the feat? “I didn’t find it difficult, because I didn’t know it was supposed to be,” she said.
Like a child who can cartwheel without fear, she simply got comfortable and learned the music in front of her, not caring that Gaspard of the night was supposed to involve sleepless nights (or maybe she enjoyed them – Argerich talked about how she’s nocturnal, loving to practice in the early morning).
The piece has become one of Argerich’s signatures, and there are wonderful versions throughout his career. You could happily start with the first release on disc, recorded when she was 18 and recently released in remastered mono sound (Decca 479 5978). It’s silvery, refined, mercurial. Or skip to the latest, live from the 2016 Lugano Festival (Warner Classics 9029583165), a now-rare solo recording by Argerich, who over the past decades has preferred to perform with other musicians in chamber music and concertos.
It’s a mesmerizing listen. In between is a volcanic live recording of the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in 1978. The raw energy it harnesses is truly exhilarating. Ravel, however, might not recognize all of his notes and marks in this performance.
For a recording that retains a sense of spontaneity but with the added bonus of studio refinement, try the 1974 version recorded in Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon. The consummate ease she brings to the keyboard is compelling, freeing her to concentrate on performing.
Ravel purists might object to a freedom or two in tempo, but it’s hard not to be swept away by his vision of the three movements. His ‘Ondine’ is the most seductive but the most vulnerable of all pianists, temperamental too – the fortissimo ‘fast and brilliant’ raging towards the end of the track is pure adrenaline. With beautifully balanced textures, ‘Le gibet’ is fateful, resigned, brooding. And his “Scarbo” is as volatile as one could ask for, encompassing a vast dynamic range, breathtaking technique and strong feeling for this mischievous figure.
SSteven Osborne (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67731-2
If you are looking for a Gaspard of the night it’s cooler, try Steven Osborne’s immaculate performance, recorded in 2010, which is part of his crossing of Ravel’s full solo. The Scottish pianist passes from the most subtle nuances of piano, pianissimo and triple pianothe size of an orchestra fortissimos.
Each movement is crystalline and moving, but its ‘Ondine’ is particularly special. Osborne himself describes it best: “I feel how pure and vulnerable the melody is. It sounds less like a seduction than a real call for companionship.
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Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo (piano)
There’s a little hiss to the sound of this 1959 recording, but it’s like looking at the statue of David through old glass: the structure and elegance of the subject aren’t compromised.
The Italian pianist brings a certain nobility to Ravel, his famous marble sound, and an infallible sense of clarity and line. The aura of menace in ‘Le gibet’ and the relentless sound of the bell are particularly chilling. Michelangelo recorded Gaspard again, a year later, and this performance has the same virtues.
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Decca 478 3206
Gaspard of the night continues to fascinate the next generation of pianists. Anna Vinnitskaya recorded a wonderful version; That of Lucas Debargue is voluntary but interesting. British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor tackled the track for his first album, recorded in 2011 when he was 18.
His ‘Ondine’ is magnificently aquatic, and he finds finely nuanced sound layers in ‘Le gibet’. Perhaps his ‘Scarbo’ is more romantic, closer to a Liszt rhapsody, than Ravel intended – the trotting outbursts are like rhetorical flourishes – but it’s still devilishly good nonetheless.
Read our reviews of Benjamin Grosvenor’s latest recordings
And one to avoid…
Tzimon Barto (piano)
An American pianist generally at ease with the 20th century repertoire, Tzimon Barto offers in his Gaspard of the night, first published in 2007, approximately 30% Ravel, 70% Barto. ‘Ondine’ seems to get stuck in quicksand, an interesting interpretation that struggles to free itself. The little hesitations he adds in ‘Le Gibet’ quickly feel distracted, while ‘Scarbo’ is mischievous but far too idiosyncratic.
Main image: Getty Images