“Ophelia” -John Everett Millais
“After dinner, I went over to the Ravels”, wrote the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes in his diary in August 1892. “Maurice showed me a very grim picture he’d done after Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström. Today he did another drawing for me, also very black, after Poe’s Manuscript found in a bottle.” Maurice Ravel was then seventeen years old. Forty years later, he would write, “‘As for technique, my teacher was certainly Edgar Allan Poe.”
Poe’s writings were introduced to France through the translations of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé (the latter’s translation of Poe’s poems illustrated by Édouard Manet, no less). Both Baudelaire and Mallarmé also championed a near-exact contemporary of Poe (1809–49): the French poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807–41), whose collection of prose-poems Gaspard de la Nuit was first published posthumously in 1842. Few texts so perfectly capture the Gothic imagination as these vivid, strange little scenes, supposedly sketched by Gaspard (none other than the Devil himself, “Old Nick of the Night”, in Roy Howat’s rendering), in a manuscript thrust into the hands – we’re told – of the incredulous poet.
Poe and Bertrand, Baudelaire and Mallarmé: no writers did more to shape the young Ravel’s fledgling artistic vision. In September 1896, after a long evening spent reading Gaspard de la Nuit together, Ravel borrowed Viñes’s copy of the collection; he didn’t return it for over a year. And a little more than a decade later, in the summer of 1908 (prompted, perhaps, by the publication of a new edition of the poems), Ravel at last found a musical response to Bertrand’s words, in his triptych Gaspard de la Nuit, virtuosic piano fantasies on three of Bertrand’s poems.
If other of Ravel’s works plumb the abyss of wild, dark fantasy – La Valse, parts of the Concerto for the Left Hand – Gaspard de la Nuit was his only venture deep into the world of the Gothic. Bertrand’s concise and brilliant prose-poetry and his richly textured subject matter – the macabre and fantastic, the colours and sounds of Spain, the incidental music of city streets – were a perfect fit for a composer who was to spend innumerable nocturnal hours walking the streets of Paris; who considered his heritage as much Basque and Spanish as French; and who delighted in the spine-tingling intersections of technical virtuosity and explosive emotional effect
Many of Bertrand’s poems open with evocations of sound and music: rain, birdsong, overheard speech, cries in the street. But only three of them begin with an injunction to listen, and these are the three that Ravel chose for his triptych. “Écoute! – Écoute!”, calls Ondine, the water-sprite at the window, while the first line of “Le Gibet” has the poet wondering “What is it that I hear?…” “Scarbo” begins with a weary grimace, as the writer seeks to free himself of the wicked, misshapen dwarf that haunts his nights: “Oh! How often have I heard and seen him, Scarbo…”
Bertrand was not only a contemporary of Poe’s, but also of Frédéric Chopin (1810–49). The latter’s B-flat minor Sonata of 1839 is equally inhabited by the Gothic imagination, with its grim “Funeral march” and whispering, disconcerting finale, which seems set to vanish (like Scarbo himself) with the snuffing of a candle flame or the swish of a curtain, before it is abruptly curtailed with two decisive chords. It is surely no coincidence that the tolling B-flats of Chopin’s “Funeral march” echo in the unrelenting B-flat bell of Ravel’s ghostly “Le Gibet”. “This bell”, the composer told the young pianist Henriette Faure, “does not dominate, it is, it tolls unwearyingly.” He linked it, appropriately, to Poe’s grim raven, with its ceaseless refrain of “Nevermore.”
We may hear other echoes of Chopin’s Sonata in Ravel’s triptych: in the (appropriately) octatonic depiction of the spider weaving a macabre necklace around the web of the hanged man, which echoes the same octatonic collection in the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata, or the insistent rhythms of “Scarbo”, which are near-identical to the defining rhythms of the sonata’s Scherzo. “Ondine” nods to Chopin in more ecstatic mode, evoking the A-flat Major Étude (op. 25/1), rather in the manner of a classical parody (as Roy Howat observes): the two works even overlap fleetingly at their respective climaxes.
“Gaspard has been the very devil to finish, which is not surprising since He is the author of the poems”, Ravel wrote to his friend Ida Godebska in July 1908. Years later, the pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who studied all Ravel’s piano music with the composer, recalled him explaining that he had wanted to produce “a caricature of Romanticism”: “but maybe it got the better of me….”, he added quietly.
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s Gothic Marvels event is taking place at 7.30 pm on Friday 24th March in Hall 2 at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG, a short walk from King’s Cross station. Internationally acclaimed pianist, Roy Howat, will perform Maurice Ravel’s brilliant masterpiece for solo piano, Gaspard de la Nuit, a work of complete originality and fiendish technical difficulty. The event will also feature a performance by Roy of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2, which contains that masterpiece of the Gothic, the funeral march.
But that’s not all. We shall also be taking this opportunity to explore and understand Ravel’s obsession, with talks about the renowned composer from Emily Kilpatrick, author of the above essay and a recent study of Ravel’s operas, and about Bertrand and the Gothic from Katherine Lunn-Rockcliffe from Hertford College, Oxford. We shall also get the chance to hear the prose poems performed by the actor Marie-Pierre Pérez. So join us for what promises to be a truly marvellous evening of music, poetry and stimulating comment in the intimate surroundings of Hall 2 at Kings Place, our very own magical space!
This event has been generously sponsored by David Ure.
Reaction Life readers are especially welcome to attend the event. Tickets are £18.50 each, but you can use your special online booking code (GOTH2) to get a reduction to £12.50. Tickets can be purchased from Kings Place here.