Of Nymphs and Demons: Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit

Ashton Macfarlane

Even the sheet music for Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit appears at home among the flickering interactions between light and shadow.

Ashton Macfarlane
February 13, 2013

I have always been tempted to see spirits in nature. I want towering pines to be the gnarled patriarchs of a world of sprites and nymphs, treetop palaces and subterranean caverns. I want vermillion lobelias and amethyst irises each to be delicate pixies that flutter on damp forest floors or expansive, swaying meadows.

These desires do not conflict with a scientific understanding of the natural world; they merely represent a beauty and a vivacity that permeate nearly all realms of our ancient, evolving planet. I have never seen science to represent a conquering, taming, or mastering of nature. It has for me represented the search for a balance between understanding and awe. This is a balance I have found in music as well; performance is an equilibrium, in which the music controls me as a performer as much as I will ever control it as a musical idea.

This at last carries me to the point of these musings; the past weekend I attended a lovely and inspiring concert by the Swiss American pianist Gilles Vonsattel at the Petit Trianon in San Jose. It was a gorgeous program of mostly French impressionist music, anchored by Ravel’s haunting, lyrical and captivating Gaspard de la Nuit. Ravel modeled Gaspard directly from a triad of poems by Aloysius Bertrand, poems of night creatures and water nymphs, ephemerality and the methodical swinging of the hanged.

The opening piece, Ondine, presents the seductive, cascading voice of a fairy of the water, a maiden of billowing gowns and dripping hair who scatters water droplets on moonlit windowpanes and describes a magnificent, fluid chateau beneath the waves. There is a stunning moment in Ravel’s glistening, liquid composition in which the melodies sink downwards, and one could swear to be plunging into an enchanted, iridescent lake.

The second, Le Gibet, is haunting, rhythmically slow, as it describes a corpse, obscured by mist, as it swings metronomically from the gallows. In Bertrand’s poem, the narrator is confused, seeing the buzzing of flies, or perhaps a scavenging beetle, or a scurrying spider that weaves a second noose for the swinging man. Yet perhaps there was nothing but a tolling bell in the distance, and the swinging of the limp corpse in the sinking sun. Ravel captures the excruciating monotony of the man’s slow movement through a repeated B flat that extends throughout the entire piece, ever-present, torturous.

The final piece, Scarbo, portrays a cunning fiend of the night, a demon that appears with the midnight moon, then disappears among swirling bed curtains, melts like candle wax into the shadows. Ravel’s musical interpretation of the poem is diabolically difficult, demanding both a fiery technicality, and an immense dynamic range and sensitivity. Ravel had declared his intentions to outdo Mily Balakireff’s infamously challenging Islamey, and created a delightfully wicked composition of scathing scale passages and mischievous stops and starts. Ravel must capture the essence of a creature that, visible as silken moonlight slants through an open window, will glide swiftly into the gathering shadows.

Gaspard de la Nuit is a fully immersive experience, and it is easy, with one’s eyes closed and lines of poetry flashing through one’s mind, to allow Ravel to direct a journey into a series of fantastic worlds, where the natural and supernatural collide.

These are tableaus of the Romantic psyche; when daybreak ends Scarbo’s nighttime mischief, he could easily slip off to reside within the dungeons and labyrinths of Giovanni Piranesi’s Carceri, or prisons. Each musical image is haunting, mysterious, alluring.

The idea of glistening water nymphs, with an ephemeral and aquamarine beauty, or of impish goblins navigating the shadows, will always be appealing to me, even as I continue to learn more and more about the natural world. Perhaps they remind me of childhood stories, perhaps they appeal to my love of the unknown, of the beautiful and unreachable. Either way, Ravel has captured both the rational and irrational parts of my mind, and drags them deep down moonlit paths, through woods of singing trees and the decaying swamps of scampering demons.

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