Gaspard de la nuit, Ondine
Professor Denis Pascal and student Darren Sheng take on Gaspard de la nuit by French composer Maurice Ravel, in this masterclass for piano.
Pascal first explains that the pianist must impose his vision onto his instrument to be able to adapt to any piano and any venue. Furthermore, the professor discusses the complexity of the piece because it’s full of discovery that requires a constant search for answers. He must settle into a voluntary discomfort imposed by Ravel, and project a homogeneous tempo. According to Pascal, it is essential to express something strong when interpreting this piece, which is part of a cycle of three movements.
Pascal then advises Sheng to lean on a stable and concrete tempo.
Syncing the arms, hands, and fingers.
Remaining as relaxed as possible.
Finding a stable and coherent tempo.
Being adaptable and expressive.
Accepting the discomfort proposed by Ravel.
Ravel’s 1908 Gaspard de la nuit is a suite of piano pieces in three movements, each inspired by a poem from Aloysius Bertrand’s collection of the same name. The suite is known for its evocative imagery and incredible technical difficulty. The first piece, Ondine, tells the tale of a nymph that seduces male travelers into the depths of her watery home. Written in the difficult key of C-sharp major, with seven sharps, the music depicts Ondine’s bewitching song as well as shimmering water, through tremolos, arpeggios, and fast moving chords. The second piece, Le Gibet, portrays a corpse hanging from the gallows. Sparse and eerie, the loudest dynamic is mezzo-piano. A repeated and persistent B-flat echoes throughout the piece, representing a tolling bell. The finale illustrates the nighttime adventures of the gremlin Scarbo, for whom the piece is named. The music is unstable, dissonant, and tumultuous, and requires an almost unparalleled level of technical agility.
Aim for excellence! You can improve your skills with expert advice. Download the annotated sheet music of this piano masterclass. Please note that this piece has been annotated in accordance to Denis Pascal's feedback and comments.
His monographic disc devoted to Jean Wiener for Sisyphe won a Diapason d'Or.
Denis Pascal performs in France and throughout the world as a soloist and chamber musician. He has made numerous appearances in the United States in venues such as: Lincoln Center and Merkin Hall in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington, Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and more, as well as in Asia: Yokohama Festival in Japan, Seoul, and in Europe in Palermo, Rome, Venice, Lisbon, Helsinki, Liepaja, Madrid, Valencia, etc. He is regularly invited in Germany to the prestigious Husum Piano Festival, where he performs the most audacious programs. In Paris, he has been applauded by audiences at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Théâtre de la Ville, the Salle Gaveau and the Opéra Garnier, as well as at numerous international festivals.
He has performed with the national orchestras of Lyon, Bordeaux, Besançon, Toulouse, and the Orchestre d'Auvergne. His concerts are well-thought-out: commited to maintaining a historical awareness of the repertoire, he often leaves the beaten track and gives concerts that are both striking and accessible to all, rigorously applying a consistent ethic to the Liszt repertoire, as well as to impressionist music and post-romantic scores.
Denis Pascal was appointed professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon in January 2010 and at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris in April 2011. Moreover, he has contributed to the elaboration of several didactic works in collaboration with the Cité de la Musique in Paris.
French composer Maurice Ravel was born in the French southwestern town of Ciboure in 1875. His parents moved to Paris shortly after his birth, and by age seven, Ravel began piano lessons. Five years later, at age twelve, he started composing. He was then admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris as a piano student, but was a very average student; he preferred composition. After graduating from the Conservatoire, he pursued his love for composition and was re-admitted to the prestigious musical institute, studying composition under Fauré.
In the 1900s, he adapted many of his piano compositions into orchestral works before WWI broke out in Europe. Ravel wanted to join, but was too old, and his health was not optimal. He nonetheless succeeded in being enlisted in 1915 as a lorry driver. The war changed him, like many soldiers who struggled to return to “normal” life. The 1920s were prolific for Ravel, as he composed many of his most famous pieces during that time. By the 1930s, he turned his attention to piano concertos.
Unfortunately, Ravel was in a traumatic taxi accident in 1932, which was not treated seriously, but seems to have precipitated an underlying cerebral condition. As his mental health deteriorated and the pain grew, he struggled to work and meet deadlines. In 1937, he had surgery to try and relieve some symptoms, but it only had temporary results, as he slipped into a coma soon after and died that same year at age 62.
Ravel's works list eighty-five works, including many incomplete or abandoned pieces. Among his most successful oeuvres are Boléro, Daphnis et Chloé, Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte, La Valse, Rhapsodie Espagnole, Gaspard de la nuit, Piano Concerto in G Major and Miroirs. He never married or had children and remained very private about his personal life, sparkling many rumors still unverified to this day. He is considered one of the most influential music figures of the 20th century, along with Debussy and Stravinsky.
Photo credit: BNF