Gaspard de la Nuit is one of the milestones within piano literature.
When Ravel dreamed it up in 1909, he specifically set out to compose something more difficult from Balakirew's still-notorious Islamey. The result of that endeavour consists of three pieces, based on three poems from the French poet Aloysius Bertrand's 52 poem cycle "Gaspard de la Nuit".
Ondine, the first in the trilogy, is the story of a water nymph, attempting to seduce a mortal man to come to her realm. She tells him, of course, that she wants to marry him and rule her underwater kingdom with him, but both music and mythology suggest that this is not entirely the case; some well-placed chords give the whole a slightly sinister feeling, which compared to the stories surrounding nymphs leads to the inevitable conclusion that the nymph is, in fact, looking forward to a nice meal.
The man is initially swayed, but then remembers himself and tells the nymph he loves another, a mortal girl – she pouts and rails at him for a bit, then giggles and disappears.
Le Gibet, the centrepiece, is an altogether more morbid work; it depicts in great detail the image of a corpse hanging on the gallows, the death bell still tolling in the city nearby, but the world around it moving on; the rising and setting sun casting eerie shadows, the bugs and beetles crawling away, the wind moaning softly as if in mourning.
Finally, the culmination – Scarbo. An interesting thing to know is that there is not just one poem called Scarbo; within the 52 poems there is two, Ravel having chosen the latter. Throughout the piece, which features a majestic main theme abruptly interrupted by a startling, unnerving rythm. Scarbo is the auditory equivalent of a personal poltergeist, a demon specifically tasked to drive the main theme to insanity.
Having resolved to play Gaspard de la Nuit, and being tasked by the Norges Musikkhøgskole to do something exciting for my Master's Project, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Modern dancer Thami Joe Fisher agreed to work with me, and after two months of planning, one week of rehearsal and half a day of arguing with the lighting technician, we managed to make Bertrand and Ravel's poetry visible.
The above video is a preview consisting of parts of the premiere performed on the 24th of Februari 2013 in Oslo.