Practicing Ravel

Beth Levin

[November 2007.]

It is early morning when I make my way to the conservatory. In room 44 I’ll find a good Yamaha I can be alone with for a few hours. I have an instrument at home, of course, but there’s something pleasurable in sneaking out of the house for a tryst with Brahms and Ravel. I’ve been working on Gaspard de la Nuit and the Brahms-Handel variations for about a month. Gaspard seemed the perfect challenge after the Bach Goldbergs: with its poetic sweep, color and undercurrents, emotionally, Gaspard lies a world away. Let me share a paraphrase of Aloysius Bertrand’s words, upon which the work is based:


“Listen! It is I, Ondine, brushing with these droplets the diamond panes of your window in moonlight. And here in her dress of moiré, the lady of the castle gazing from her balcony at the starry night and slumbering lake. Each wave is a water sprite swimming in the current, each current, a path winding toward my palace of water, at the bottom of the lake, with fire, earth, and air.

“Listen! My father is beating the croaking water with a green alder branch, my sisters caress the cool islands of grasses, water lilies and gladioli with their arms of foam, laughing at the tottering, bearded willow.

“After murmuring her song, she besought me to accept her ring, to be the husband of an Undine, to visit her palace, to be king of the lakes. When I replied I’m in love with a mortal woman, she became sulky and vexed, wept a few tears, burst out laughing, and vanished in showers that trickled down my blue windowpanes.”

Le Gibet

“Ah! Could that be the night wind yelping, or the hanged man on the gallows fork? Could it be a cricket from its place in the moss, the ivy with which, of pity, the forest covers its floor? Could it be a fly hunting for prey, playing its horn to ears deaf to death’s fanfare?

“Could it be a may-bug plucking bloody hairs from the hanged man’s scalp? Could it be a spider embroidering a cravat for the corpse’s neck? It is the bell of the city below the horizon, the carcass of a hanged man red in the setting sun?”


“O, how often have I seen Scarbo at midnight in the shining moonlight, a silver shield on an azure banner of golden bees! How often have I heard his laughter in the shadow of my alcove, his nails grating on my bed curtains’ silk! How often have I seen him descend from the ceiling, pirouette and roll around the room like the spindle from a witch’s distaff!

“Did I think at such times the gnome vanished? Moonlit, he grew bigger, huge as a Gothic tower, a golden bell on his pointed cap! His body waxed blue, diaphanous as a taper, face candle-pale, and suddenly extinguish.”


I cover the piano with my things, laying claim. I look into the mirror at my unadorned face. I’m dressed for hard labor. I’ve brought coffee but may forget to drink it. There are two large windows from which I can look out on Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue this lovely Indian summer day. And yet October foreshadows the oncoming winter and, like Scarbo, one’s sense of mortality.

My old Durand edition is a lovely butterscotch with bold navy print. Ravel’s signature drips like blood. The pages are worn from use, clutched to my body, as if to assimilate the music’s innermost secrets. Often I begin at the end and work backwards, a way of inching into practicing without having to face the music head on. Today, against custom, I open to the first page.

I. “Ondine”
Lent, ppp, seven sharps

The opening trill seems calculated to frighten amateurs. What am I saying? It would scare Horowitz! A chord to a single note and back in 32nds, the water-like pattern flowing for the duration. One must control it so perfectly, so evenly, lest it overwhelm the melody. The pianist, as actor, becomes Ondine.

The melody enters in the left hand at measure three: tres doux et tres expressif. Its beauty lies in its calm simplicity, perched atop the water, taking time to unfold. The crescendo between measures 7 and 8 gives the melody shape, a height from which to fall.

Scanning the next few pages, I see pp and ppp denoting long, legato slurs and crescendidecrescendi, tone-painting the lake. I’m grateful for cedez legerement at measure 22 and un peu retenue at measure 30, an opportunity to breathe and relax to the decrescendo’s end.

I love that Ravel writes tres doux at measure 45, a reminder of the sweetness the music requires. The moment’s ravishing harmony is about to melt into yet more honey at measure 46.

One soon senses the line between “Ondine”’s salient beauty, with its luscious sweep, and cooler aspects at which Ravel hints. It would be too easy to drown oneself in pools of color and give over to endless rubato. Far wiser to sit back, adhere to a tempo and maintain a context within which the tonality’s iridescence creates its effect.

The dynamic level by measure 56 has reached its first mezzo forte, thence to a full forte by measure 57. A dramatic drop to pp occurs at measure 58 as the delightful running chords of the right hand play against an emerging melody in the left. A crescendo to forte points the measure to a focal point and drops back at measure’s end. This gesture repeats in measures 60-62. At measure 63, augmentez peu a peu suggests a direct and hearty climb to a climax at measure 77, when and all hell breaks loose. The 32nds are wild now, with spiky octave gestures against notes that descend to the piano’s depths. Lengthened notes among the morass form a melodic line, and not until a decrescendo in measure 68 do matters return to calm.

Another retenez at measure 72 with an accompanying decrescendo directs the music gently back to encore plus lent. The glissandi and arpeggiated passages of measures 73 to 77 evoke the harp, one’s fingers working seamlessly to achieve the effect. Attention to fingering is critical here and throughout. One relegates traditional scale fingering to the wayside in searching out creative solutions.

At measure 77 the music mimics sea, all arpeggios with the simplest two-note gestures scattered here and there. Only at measure 82 does the haunting melody emerge as in the beginning, quickly dissolving by measure 85. Measure 86: tres lent, a suspension of time amidst sparse melodic fragments, slow, pp, no accompaniment — we hold our breath.

At measure 90, I jotted down “Explosion!” Ravel has it as rapide et brillant. Arpeggios in ff burst from the quiet, an electric shock. These too dissolve by measure 92, the music close to spent. In its aftermath at measure 93, we encounter serene, liquid arpeggios gliding weightlessly in the original tempo. “Ondine” vanishes with no ritardando.


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