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Gaspard de la Nuit, or The Night and its Marvels, marks the beginning of the prose poetry genre. Written by Aloysius Bertrand (1804-1841), it was published in 1842 in Belgium, and received little acclaim. It is a darkly surreal, gothic collection of eleven prose poems, each with an chilling epitaph, which alternates between hauntingly beautiful and grotesquely morbid. The primary characters are:
the narrator
the dwarf Scarbo who seems to have the narrator in his clutches, determining his fate
the moon, which is compared to such things as a hanged man and a beautiful woman,
and the narrator’s dead grandfather.
There is also a lot of animal imagery, especially crickets, spiders, and salamanders. The main themes are death, night, prayer, and pain.

Here is #III, The Madman, which I think is representative of the collection as a whole.


A carolus or even more, if you prefer, an agnea d'or.
- The manuscripts of the King's Library.

The moon was combing her hair with a large ebony comb that silvered the hills, meadows, and woods with a rain of glowworms.


*

Scarbo, the gnome who abounds in treasures, was sitting on my roof, to the cry of a weathercock, ducats and florins that were jumping rhythmically, the false coins strewing the street.

How the madman sneered, roaming each night through the deserted city, one eye on the moon and the other – blind!

“The moon be damned!” he growled, gathering the coins of the devil; “I shall buy the pillory to keep myself warm in the sun!”

But the moon was still there, the waning moon. And Scarbo was secretly coining ducats and florins in my cellar with each blow of his minting press.

Meanwhile, his two horns out ahead, a snail that the night had led astray was seeking its way on my glowing stained glass.


Check out http://24.252.29.175:8010/night/ for a complete translation. It’s worth reading.

Gaspard de la Nuit is also a ridiculously hard piano suite written by Maurice Ravel, inspired by the poetry cited above. Let's cite the actual poems:

*****

Ondine
''Listen! Listen! It is I, it is Ondine brushing with these drops of water the resonant diamond panes of your window illuminated by the dull moonbeams; and here in the dress of moire, is the lady of the castle on her balcony gazing at the beautiful starry night and the beautiful slumbering lake. Each wave is a water sprite swimming in the current, Each current is a path winding toward my palace, And my palace is of fluid construction, at the bottom of the lake, Within the triangle formed by fire, earth, and air. ?

Listen! Listen! My father is beating the croaking water with a branch of green alder, And my sisters are caressing the cool islands of grasses, water lilies and gladioli with their arms of foam, Or are laughing at the tottering, bearded willow that is angling.''

After murmuring her song, she besought me to accept her ring on my finger, to be the husband of an Undine, and to visit her palace with her, to be king of the lakes. And when I replied that I was in love with a mortal woman, she was sulky and vexed; She wept a few tears, burst out laughing, and vanished in showers that formed white trickles down my blue windowpanes.

    Le Gibet
Ah! Could what I hear be the cold night wind yelping, or the hanged man uttering a sigh on the gallows fork? Could it be some cricket singing from its hiding place in the moss and sterile ivy with which the forest covers it floor out of pity? Could it be some fly hunting for prey and blowing its horn all around those ears deaf to the fanfare of the dead?

Could it be some cockchafer plucking a bloody hair from his bald scalp in its uneven flight? Or could it be some spider embroidering a half-ell of muslin as a tie for that strangled 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.

    Scarbo
Oh, how often have I heard and seen Scarbo when at midnight the moon shines in the sky like a silver shield on an azure banner seam of golden bees! How often have I heard his laughter booming in the shadow of my alcove, and his nails grating on the silk of my bed curtains! How often have I seen him come down from the ceiling, pirouetted on one foot and roll around the room like the spindle that has fallen from a witch's distaff!

Did I at such time think he had vanished? Then the gnome would grow bigger between the moon and me like the bell tower of a Gothic cathedral, a round golden bell shaking on his pointed cap! But soon his body would become blue, diaphanous as the wax of a taper; his face would become pale as the wax of a candle end - and suddenly he would be extinguished.

***** 

He wrote it to do two things:

 1) Be a carricature of Romanticism

 2) Be more techinically demanding than Balakirev's Islamey.

Did succeed? For 1), The full quotation is "I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me." To see what he meant, take a close listen at the entire suite.

  Ondine, at least for me, seems clear. It is indeed, a very icy, frigid affair of the hurt and scorn of a water sprite, but there are these glimmers of actual human-like teardrops refracting underneath the watery harmonies, there is sadness there, and it is genuine. I think one can see the grief and anger in the mounting crescendo around the middle is very real, it seems Ravel in a rather Pymalion turn of affairs fell in love with his own creation.

   Le Gibet is about a hanging man looking at his last sunset, as a bell tolls in the distance. Throughout the piece, a bell-like b-flat continues to toll for I think 157 times, as a sunset that seems to be frozen in dark chords slowly rolls away offstage. Very grim. Technically, it may be the easiest of the three to get down, but it is a study in atmosphere and pedalling, and so its difficulties are subtle.

   Scarbo is a michevious spirit that jumps off walls, makes frightening shadows in candle-light and mixes in with the sleeper's dreams, nightmares them, and wakes him up to scare him in real life. It is by FAR the hardest piece in the set. Repeated notes up the wazoo, and giant leaps, confident and fast arpeggios, dynamic control like whoa, it's no joke.

   Yes, it did after all get the better of him.

How about 2)? Well, I've only tried the first page or two of Ondine, just one of Scarbo, and nothing at all of Le Gibet. But I gave up for a reason. I have a friend that plays both the entire Gaspard set and Islamey (yes the man is a beast), and he says the set, especialy Scarbo is probably the hardest piece in Ravel's ouvre. Except maybe La Valse. And yes, it is harder than Islamey.

 Islamey was thought to be almost unplayable when in came out, but nowadays, everyone plays it, and likewise with Gaspard. It's almost a conservatory graduation requirement.

     Favorite Versions

1) Arturo Benedetti Michelangelli: A man famed for never hitting a wrong note ever, his Gaspard is tightly controlled and gently menacing.

2) Jean-Yves Thibaudet: Hands down, the best Scarbo ever.

3) Ivor Pogorelich

4) Martha Argerich

5) Ravel himsef playing it on a piano roll: For a man famed for fudging through piano lessons in the conservatoire, he sure can play his Ondine. I think the best Ondine I've heard.

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