Gaspard de la nuit  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Gaspard de la Nuit (book)

Gaspard de la nuit: Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand is a suite of pieces for solo piano by Maurice Ravel, written in 1908. It has three movements, each based on a poem or fantaisie from the collection Gaspard de la Nuit, fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot completed in 1836 by Aloysius Bertrand. The work was premiered in Paris, on January 9, 1909, by Ricardo Viñes.

The piece is famous for its difficulty, partly because Ravel intended the Scarbo movement to be more difficult than Balakirev's Islamey. Because of its technical challenges and profound musical structure, Scarbo is considered one of the most difficult solo piano pieces ever written.

The manuscript currently resides in the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin.



The name "Gaspard" is derived from its original Persian form, denoting "the man in charge of the royal treasures": "Gaspard of the Night" or the treasurer of the night thus creates allusions to someone in charge of all that is jewel-like, dark, mysterious, perhaps even morose.

Of the work, Ravel himself said: "Gaspard has been a devil in coming, but that is only logical since it was he who is the author of the poems. My ambition is to say with notes what a poet expresses with words."

Aloysius Bertrand, author of Gaspard de la Nuit, introduces his collection by attributing them to a mysterious old man met in a park in Dijon, who lent him the book. When he goes in search of M. Gaspard to return the volume, he asks, 'Tell me where M. Gaspard de la Nuit may be found.' 'He is in hell, provided that he isn't somewhere else,' comes the reply. 'Ah! I am beginning to understand! What! Gaspard de la Nuit must be...?' the poet continues. 'Ah! Yes... the devil!' his informant responds. 'Thankyou, mon brave!... If Gaspard de la Nuit is in hell, may he roast there. I shall publish his book.'



Based on the poem "Ondine", an oneiric tale of a water fairy singing to seduce the observer into visiting her kingdom deep at the bottom of a lake. It is reminiscent of Ravel's early piano masterpiece, the Jeux d'eau (1901), with the sounds of water falling and flowing, woven with cascades. This piece contains technical challenges for the right hand such as the fast repetition of three-note chords. The duration of Ondine is about 6:30. Template:Listen

<poem>(. . . . . . . . Je croyais entendre

Une vague harmonie enchanter mon sommeil, Et près de moi s'épandre un murmure pareil Aux chants entrecoupés d'une voix triste et tendre.

Ch. Brugnot. – Les deux Génies)

» Écoute ! – Écoute ! – C'est moi, c'est Ondine qui frôle de ces gouttes d'eau les losanges sonores de ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la lune; et voici, en robe de moire, la dame châtelaine qui contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et le beau lac endormi.

» Chaque flot est un ondin qui nage dans le courant, chaque courant est un sentier qui serpente vers mon palais, et mon palais est bâti fluide, au fond du lac, dans le triangle du feu, de la terre et de l'air.

» Écoute ! – Écoute ! – Mon père bat l'eau coassante d'une branche d'aulne verte, et mes sœurs caressent de leurs bras d'écume les fraîches îles d'herbes, de nénuphars et de glaîeuls, ou se moquent du saule caduc et barbu qui pêche à la ligne. »

Sa chanson murmurée, elle me supplia de recevoir son anneau à mon doigt, pour être l'époux d'une Ondine, et de visiter avec elle son palais, pour être le roi des lacs.

Et comme je lui répondais que j'aimais une mortelle, boudeuse et dépitée, elle pleura quelques larmes, poussa un éclat de rire, et s'évanouit en giboulées qui ruisselèrent blanches le long de mes vitraux bleus.</poem>

<poem>(. . . . . . . . I thought I heard

A faint harmony that enchants my sleep. And close to me radiates an identical murmur Of songs interrupted by a sad and tender voice.

Ch. Brugnot – The two Spirits)

» 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; and here in gown of watered silk, the mistress of the chateau gazes from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and the beautiful sleeping lake.

» Each wave is a water sprite who swims in the stream, each stream is a footpath that winds towards my palace, and my palace is a fluid structure, at the bottom of the lake, in a triangle of fire, of earth and of air.

» Listen! – Listen! – My father whips the croaking water with a branch of a green alder tree, and my sisters caress with their arms of foam the cool islands of herbs, of water lilies, and of corn flowers, or laugh at the decrepit and bearded willow who fishes at the line. »

Her song murmured, she beseeched me to accept her ring on my finger, to be the husband of an Ondine, and to visit her in her palace and be king of the lakes.

And as I was replying to her that I loved a mortal, sullen and spiteful, she wept some tears, uttered a burst of laughter, and vanished in a shower that streamed white down the length of my blue stained glass windows.</poem>

Le Gibet

Based on the poem "Le Gibet", the observer is presented with a view of the desert, where the lone corpse of a hanged man on a gibbet stands out against the horizon, reddened by the setting sun; a bell tolls from inside the walls of a far-off city, creating the deathly atmosphere that surrounds the observer. Throughout the entire piece is a B-flat octave ostinato, imitative of the tolling bell, that must remain distinctive and constant in tone as the notes cross over and dynamics change. The duration of Le Gibet is about 7:15.


Based on the poem "Scarbo", this movement depicts the nighttime mischief of a small fiend or goblin, making pirouettes, flitting in and out of the darkness, disappearing and suddenly reappearing. Its uneven flight, hitting and scratching against the walls, casting a growing shadow in the moonlight, creates a nightmarish scene for the observer lying in his bed. With its repeated notes and two terrifying climaxes, this is the high point in technical difficulty of all the three movements. Technical challenges include repeated notes in both hands, and double-note scales in major seconds in the right hand. Ravel reportedly said about Scarbo: "I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano." The duration of Scarbo is about 8:30.


<poem>(Il regarda sous le lit, dans la cheminée, dans le bahut;

– personne. Il ne put comprendre par où il s'était introduit, par où il s'était évadé.

Hoffmann. – Contes nocturnes)

Oh! que de fois je l'ai entendu et vu, Scarbo, lorsqu'à minuit la lune brille dans le ciel comme un écu d'argent sur une bannière d'azur semée d'abeilles d'or!

Que de fois j'ai entendu bourdonner son rire dans l'ombre de mon alcôve, et grincer son ongle sur la soie des courtines de mon lit!

Que de fois je l'ai vu descendre du plancher, pirouetter sur un pied et rouler par la chambre comme le fuseau tombé de la quenouille d'une sorcière!

Le croyais-je alors évanoui? le nain grandissait entre la lune et moi comme le clocher d'une cathédrale gothique, un grelot d'or en branle à son bonnet pointu!

Mais bientôt son corps bleuissait, diaphane comme la cire d'une bougie, son visage blémissait comme la cire d'un lumignon, – et soudain il s'éteignait.</poem>


(He looked under the bed, in the chimney, in the cupboard; – nobody. He could not understand how he got in, or how he escaped.

Hoffmann. – Nocturnal Tales)

Oh! how often have I heard and seen him, Scarbo, when at midnight the moon glitters in the sky like a silver shield on an azure banner strewn with golden bees.

How often have I heard his laughter buzz in the shadow of my alcove, and his fingernail grate on the silk of the curtains of my bed!

How often have I seen him alight on the floor, pirouette on a foot and roll through the room like the spindle fallen from the wand of a sorceress!

Do I think him vanished then? the dwarf grows between the moon and me like the belfry of a gothic cathedral, a golden bell shakes on his pointed cap!

But soon his body becomes blue, translucent like the wax of a candle, his face pales like the wax of a candle end – and suddenly he is extinguished.</poem>

Orchestral versions

Eugene Goossens orchestrated Gaspard in 1942.

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