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Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841) introduced the prose poem to French literature and defined the macabre and grotesque in his collection Gaspard de la nuit (Gaspard of the Night), just as his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe had in English.
Ravel chose the three titles "Ondine," "Le gibet," and "Scarbo" for his inspiration. To reiterate, the texts are all we need; the poems themselves matter more than any other verbal description of the music. Ravel wrote, "My ambition is to say with notes what a poet expresses with words."
Read them, then listen for the shimmer of water, the seductive voice of Ondine, and the shower of her laughter and liquid departure.
Listen for the many-leveled depths of mood conjured in "Le gibet" (Gallows), when the score requires three staves to notate the isolated terraces of sound that the pianist must sustain. Conjured are the knell of the distant bell tolling ceaselessly throughout, the reddening sunset glow, the ghastly corpse swaying.
And listen as the stasis and gloom of "Le gibet" becomes the frenetic leaping and spinning of the menacing gremlin Scarbo, who finally vanishes, not with a bang, but with the sudden exhalation of an exhausted wick extinguished as it falls.
It is acknowledged that Gaspard de la nuit is the greatest technical challenge in the standard repertory.
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.