Gaspard de la nuit was written in 1908 by the master of impressionist music, Maurice Ravel. He was 33 years old at the time. Each of its three movements are based on poems from Aloysius Bertrand’s eponymous 1836 poetry collection Gaspard de la Nuit, fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot.¹ This composition is fascinatingly complex, and at times its technicality borders on absurdity. Despite its focus on instrumental mastery, Gaspard de la nuit never fails to remain emotional and beautiful.
Though the piece is notoriously difficult to play, Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich performs this rendition brilliantly. This recording was made in 1983 when Pogorelich was 25. His interpretation and performance of the composition show virtuosic control of the piano, a brilliant sense of balance, and deep psychological insight into the music. It is obvious while listening that he loves playing the piano with all of his heart.
Gaspard de la nuit is a whirlwind of emotive content. It is a dynamic journey that, at the time of composition, broke the mold of what was possible with melodic and rhythmic content in music. Despite being written 108 years ago, it still sounds startlingly fresh. Ravel was a strange man, and his quirks shine through in the music.
The most recognizible features of Ondine (0:00) are its floating glissandos and its juxtaposition of quick, sharp chords with more drawn-out melodies. The section is mostly linear, with small repeated sections throughout to ground it and provide moments of return and deliberation. It is reminiscent of calmly floating on a cloud or down a river, but also at the same time of being driven slowly to madness. It sounds like not quite having lost your mind yet, but definitely being lost within it. The atmosphere is wistful, full of thoughts of earlier, simpler times. Yet there are also feelings of agitation and frustration. A dark genius is being consumed quietly by their own strengths.
Le Gibet (7:36) then eschews the linear structure in favor of a different musical method, one more focused on repetition and reflection. The piece slows down and skulks about, lying low. One gets a sense of an introspective recognition of descent. It evokes images of subsistence living, but nothing more. It is as though an attempt is being made to turn things around, despite the recognized possibility that it may already be too late.
The final section, Scarbo (14:28), is marked by adventurous passages sprinkled with staccato interjections. The musical structure returns to one of linearity with small moments of self-reference and deliberation. It begins with what sounds like an itch that cannot be scratched, a pain that cannot be relieved. A person is on the edge; their eye twitches incessantly. But this state is not to last. The final explosion occurs. It is the grand escape, or perhaps the final flight into madness. The music remains carefully elusive and ambiguous, allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions.
This resolution is beautiful, but also so much more than merely that. This is true for the piece as a whole. Beauty without substance is banal; Ravel, being the master that he is, never fell into that trap. Ravel’s works defy being nailed down with adjectives. For every descriptor that you attach to it, another ten could apply in other ways. His work is complex and worthy of serious study, thought, and consideration. Gaspard de la nuit is a breathtaking piece and a brilliant work of art, deserving thoughtful appreciation from a new generation of listeners.
¹ As these pieces were written from poems, Ravel composed with specific imagery in his mind accompanying the music. This analysis is written from a metamodernist perspective, and freely borrows ideas from Barthes’ La mort de l’auteur without necessarily adhering to them completely. The visual interpretations presented later in the text, therefore, do not reference Ravel’s intended imagery.