Maurice Ravel 1875-1937

Maurice Ravel was one of France's most important composers and very influential early 20th century music.

Gaspard de la Nuit

In 1908, Ravel began to compose this triptych on poems by Aloysius Bertrand, a strange romantic figure from the time when fairy-tale Gothic was in fashion. The three poems chosen by Ravel are quite dissimilar, but have been drawn together through their perfect musical realisation.


Ondine (the water fairy) is a consummate representation of the opening lines of Bertrand's poem: "Listen!-Listen!-It is I, Ondine, brushing drops of water against the ringing diamonds of your window, lit by the dull moonlight; and here on her balcony is the lady of the château, in a dress of watered silk, contemplating the beautiful starry night and the beautiful sleeping lake."

Le Gibet

Le Gibet (the gallows) is built around one note: an ever-present, insistent B flat, a fatal bell which dies away in the gloom of the final pianissimo. Ravel has translated all the macabre resonance of the poem whose final sentence explains it: "It is the bell tolling from a town far beyond the horizon, and the hanged man's corpse that glows red in the setting sun".


After the static picture of Le Gibet, the devilish dwarf, Scarbo, appears even more frantic by comparison: "Oh! the times I have heard and seen him-Scarbo, when at midnight the moon shines in the heavens like a silver crown on a blue banner emblazoned with golden bees. … The times I have seen him jump on the floor, pirouette on one foot and revolve round the room like the fallen spindle of a sorceress's distaff. … But soon his body faded, diaphanous as the wax of a candle, his face grown pale as the wax of a candle end-and suddenly he disappeared."

Acknowledgments: Jourdan-Morhange, Ravel according to Ravel, London 1988; Roger Nichols, Ravel, London 1977; Norman Demuth, Ravel, London 1947.

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