Ondine is the first movement of Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) set to three poems by Aloysius Bertrand. The first movement is about a water nymphs who tries, but fails, to seduce a human. Legend has it that Aloysius Bertrand received the story from the devil himself and that Ravel thought it appropriate that it would be devilishly difficult to play. Some say it’s thee most difficult solo piano piece of all time and there has been speculation of how Ravel, with his supposedly average piano skills, managed to conceive of it. Perhaps the devil whispered it in his ear?
Gaspard de la Nuit was premiered in Paris 1909, by Ricardo Viñes y Roda. Viñes was the piano virtuoso of the time and had helped introduce Russian composers to France. He had the technical skill to perform Gaspard de la Nuit and had introduced most of the significant pieces of the time to the French audience. The premier was reportedly a success, but Ravel himself found that Viñes had ‘pumped up’ the piece too much.
The technical difficulty in playing the piece is threefold, the underlying musical structure is unconventional, with several asymmetrical motifs, a breakneck speed and it also requires some challenging fingering techniques. When mastered correctly the cascading water effect is unmistakable.
The water falls, splashes, trickles, sprays and rises along with the nymphs emotions. The nymph’s feelings of playfulness soon transform into feelings of longing, desperation and finally rage as she fails to convince her human to join her in her oceanic kingdom.
“Listen! Listen! It is I; it is Ondine, who lightly brushes with water drops the resonant diamond-shaped panes of your window, lit by the dull rays of the moon; and here, in her silk dress, is the lady of the manor, who muses from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and on the lovely sleeping lake.” 5 “Each wave is an Ondine swimming in the current; each current is a pathway winding towards my palace; and my palace is built fluidly, in the depths of the lake, in the triangle of fire, earth, and water.” (Bertrand, 1842:61).
Like other Impressionistic works Ondine is polytonal and ambiguous in terms of key, with modernist harmonies. It does not follow a strict classical structure, although it is divided up into proportionate sections. The main melody is beautifully and longingly played as broken chords. The piece is extremely rhythmically complex and polyrhythmic. The rhythms embody Bertrand’s words by using all manner of ingenious sonorities and articulations. Ravel turns the piano into an entire orchestra. Never has a piano been used more expressively. The difference between Debussy and Ravel is evident in this piece. Ravel’s craftsmanship is astounding. He is a master orchestrator and here he shows how he can re-orchestrate a piano, using just a piano. It is an incredible and impressive achievement.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Lazic, S. (2017) Ravel Tile [Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Lazic.
Bertrand, A. (1842) Gaspard de la Nuit — Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot. Translated by Wright,J. (1994) Maryland: University Press of America
Eccles, A. (2004) Gaspard de la nuit: Horror and Elegance. Stanford University. At: http://web.stanford.edu/group/journal/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Eccles_Hum_2004.pdf (Accessed on 1 March 2017)
Freed, R. (s.a) Gaspard de la nuit: About the Work. At: https://www.kennedy-center.org/artist/composition/2631 (Accessed on 1 March 2017)
Ivanchenko, O. (2015) Characteristics of Maurice Ravel’s Compositional Language as Seen trough the Texture of his Selected Piano Works and the Piano Suite “Gaspard de la Nuit”. [D.M.A.] University of Miami. At: http://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2430&context=oa_dissertations (Accessed on 4 March 2017)
Johnston, B. (s.a) Gaspard de la nuit, for piano. At: http://www.allmusic.com/composition/gaspard-de-la-nuit-for-piano-mc0002359403 (Accessed on 1 March 2017)
Nichols, R. (2011) Gaspard de la nuit. At: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W5429_202902 (Accessed on 1 March 2017)
Osborne, S. (2011) Steven Osborne: wrestling with Ravel. At: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/sep/29/steven-osborne-diary-ravel (Accessed on 1 March 2017)
Ravel, M. (s.d) Maurice Ravel [Download] Available at : Maurice Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit, M. 55: I. Ondine (Accessed on 3 April 2017)
Yust, J. (2013) ‘Tonal Prisms: Iterated Quantization in Chromatic Tonality and Ravel’s “Ondine”’ In: Journal of Mathematics and Music 7/2 (2013), 145–165 [online] At: http://people.bu.edu/jyust/quant_iterated_final_nocode.pdf (Accessed on 1 March 2017)