Gaspard de la nuit (Devil of the night)

Three poems for piano after poetry by Aloysium Bertrand

  • Ondine (The Water Spirit) 
  • Le Gibet (The Gallows)
  • Scarbo (The Gremlin) 

by Maurice Ravel

Gaspard de la nuit

In 1842, Aloysium Bertrand published Gaspard de la nuit, a dark book of poetry devoted to the language of horror. Inspired, Ravel chose three poems in 1908 and set them to musical imagery, producing compositions for piano highly programmatic and nightmarish in nature. Unlike the vocal transcriptions heard on my solo album, On Wings of Song, Ravel didn’t set individual words to music, but rather he set emblematic impressions of the poems to music. The three poems he chose depict the evil seduction of a water spirit, the grotesque world surrounding a hanging corpse, and the terror induced by a menacing gremlin. My loose translation of the poems appears here.

Three poems from Gaspard de la Nuit: Fantaisies á la maniére de Rembrandt et de Callot written by the devil (Gaspard de la Nuit) and published by Aloysius Bertrand in 1842, translated by Greg Anderson.


…I thought I heard a vague harmony enchant my slumber and, near me, radiating, a identical murmur like the interrupted songs of a sad and tender voice.
– C. Brugnot (The Two Spirits) 

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
It is I, Ondine, spirit of the water,
   who brushes these drops,
The water on the resonant panes of your windows,
   lit by the gloomy rays of the moon.
And here, in a gown of watered silk,
   gazing from my chateau terrace,
I contemplate the beautiful starry night
   and the restless sleeping lake. 

“The waves are my sisters, swimming the paths
   which wander towards my palace…
The walls are at the bottom of the lake,
   in a fluid structure of earth and fire and air. 

“Listen! Listen! Do you know what you hear?
My father strikes the water with an alder branch,
My sisters caress the grass with arms of white foam,
   lift the water lilies, move the rushes,
and tease the bearded willow which casts its line,
   baited with leaves, into the darting water.” 

When she had breathed her song, she begged me – 
   begged me – to put her ring on my finger;
      to be her husband and sink with her down – 
         down to her drowned palace
      and be king of all the lakes.
   I told her I loved a mortal woman.
Abashed and vexed, she dissolved into tears and laughter;
   vanished in a scatter of rain –
      white streams across the dark night
         of my window. 

The Gallows 

What do I see stirring around those gallows?

What is it – this uneasy sound in the dusk?

Is it the screech of the north wind, 
   or does the hanged man on the gallows let out a sigh?
Is it a cricket who sings lurking in the moss and ivy
   which covers the forest floor out of pity?
Is it some fly hunting raw flesh and sounding its horn
   around those ears which are deaf to the fanfare?
Is it the scarab beetle in its uneven flight
   picking a blood-soaked hair from the scalp?
Or then, is it the spider who embroiders a muslin tie –
   a shroud for the broken neck? 

It is the bell ringing by the walls of a city below the horizon
and the carcass of a hanged man reddened by the setting sun. 


He looked under the bed, in the fireplace, in the chest: nobody. He could not understand where he had entered or how he had escaped.
—Hoffmann (Nighttime stories) 

I have heard him again and again
   and seen him too! Scarbo the gremlin.
He comes in the dead of the night, 
   when the moon glitters in the sky like a silver shield
   on an azure banner strewn with golden bees. 

I have heard his laugh boom from the shadow,
   and his fingernails grate on the silk of my bed curtains! 

I have seen him drop from the ceiling
   pirouette on one foot and roll across the floor
Like the spindle of a spinning wheel
   when a dark witch weaves! 

And I think he had vanished? No. At such times 
   the gremlin would rise between me and the moon
As high and narrow as a gothic steeple –
   a golden bell swaying like his pointed cap! 

But then, his body would change, became as blue
   and translucent as the wax of a taper, 
   his face as pale as candle grease – 
and suddenly he would be extinguished.  

Translations © 2006 Greg Anderson. All rights reserved.

In composing Gaspard de la nuit (particularly Scarbo), Ravel composed what he hoped to be considered the apex of piano virtuosity – something to rival Balakirev’s notoriously fiendish Islamay. In doing so, he made one of the greatest contributions to the piano repertoire, creating new pianistic resources to create the necessary effects. Ondine’s ceaseless song of seduction is accompanied by a mirage of water and its mysterious movements, evoked by Ravel through augmented chords, tremolos, arpeggios, and arabesques (over 10,000 notes in 6 minutes). By contrast, "The Gibbet" relies on sparse textures, eerie and dissonant harmonies, and much use of the octatonic scale to depict the sinister landscape. The squeaks of the noose swaying in the wind are represented by an obsessive repetition of B-flats. The music to "Scarbo" has been made infamous to Minnesotans; one page is magnified to immense proportions on the side of a music building in downtown Minneapolis. Reflecting the poem, the music is volatile, violent, and full of nervous energy as the music abruptly jumps from theme to theme. Throughout, Ravel has a predilection for the vibrant (and somewhat dissonant) intervals of the seventh and ninth.

— Greg Anderson