Today, We will pursue the exploration of my album’s Track list with Ravel. Not that we’re done with Janáček yet, believe me, but let’s take a little detour by one of my favorite pieces ever, Gaspard de la nuit. For those who know me close enough, they know how I adore this piece and that I could speak about it for hours. Written in 1908, during a very dark period of the composer’s life, it represents for me the quintessence of piano writing. From a technical point of view, of course, this dense triptych is still considered as the most difficult work for piano in the standard repertoire. But more than this, the piece shows such a large range of colors and emotions that it requires from the pianist a heart, sensitiveness, creativeness and imagination more than in any other piano work. The thing is: with Gaspard de la nuit, you can’t cheat. You can’t pretend to be anything but what you are.
The first piece of Gaspard de la nuit is Ondine. So my first question is: what is an ondine? To keep it short, an ondine is a water nymph or water spirit. Interesting fact about ondines: Ondines are said to be able to gain a soul by marrying a man and bearing his child. Other interesting fact about ondines: they are supposed to have a beautiful voice and sing to charm men. Ondines are popular characters in literature as well as in music (I’m thinking especially about Dvořák’s Rusálka as the perfect example).
Reading Aloysius Bertrand’s poem (epigraph to Ondine), we clearly understand the picture: An Ondine comes out of the lake, tries to charm a man. She’s singing a song telling him she’s a princess and has a marvellous liquid castle. Of course, she asks the man to marry her, but he refuses, saying he already loves a mortal. She “wept a few tears, burst out laughing and vanished in showers that formed white trickles down my blue windowpanes” (Aloysuis Bertrand).
Why am I telling this story? Because Gaspard de la nuit is program music. How could I deny that? Ravel sticks to the poem and expresses in music what Aloysius Bertrand expresses in words. Let’s take two easy examples.
Ondine begins with a sort of tremelo (right hand) and a beautiful melody (left hand).
In this beginning, you can make a connection with two elements qualifying Ondine : water (the “tremolos”) and her singing (the melody). The narrative content is here : Ravel describes the scene for us. In the background, water flows. In the foreground, Ondine is singing.
Let’s now take the last part of the poem : She [...] Burst out laughing and vanished in showers that formed white trickles down my blue windowpanes. Now, have a look at the last page of the score:
Isn’t this fast ascending arpeggio with a crescendo to fortissimo a musical burst of laughter? And aren’t the following descending arpeggiandos perfectly expressing Ondine vanishing in showers?
Ravel is generally considered to be one of the greatest impressionists. He didn’t like this categorization at all and wrote music far from being impressionist (Concerto in G for example) but in Ondine he uses fast movements of sounds in the pianissimo dynamic, explores timbres of the piano, finds new sound effects and place the colour of sound in the foreground. So typically impressionist.
Ravel choose in the first of Gaspard de la nuit to tell us the story of Ondine using his musical talent as a narrative technique and carefully selected his colors to depict the scene as he pictured it. That’s why, when listening to Ondine, I expect the pianist to be creative enough with sound effects, colors and textures to be able to tell me this dense story. That’s one of the challenge of Gaspard.
This was my first post about Ondine and in the next one, we’ll still talk about Ondine, but more specifically about Ravel’s experiments in this piece, featuring, as a guest star, Hermann von Helmholtz.