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Gaspard de la Nuit


a radio feature produced by Michael Shirrefs

Why did that very modern 20th Century composer, Maurice Ravel, compose images of spectres, goblins and death?

Gaspard de la Nuit is the title of one of the most arresting and spectacularly difficult works ever written for the piano, but the name of this 3-part suite has it’s origins much earlier. This remarkable piano work by Ravel is actually a conversation between the composer and a little-known poet living more that 60 years earlier. And today’s Into the Music feature enters into their dialogue—between the words and the music.

Arthur Rackham's 1909 depiction of Undine or Ondine

The result was three movements of utterly distinct character, based on three of the Bertrand poems-OndineLe Gibet and Scarbo.


This program looks at how these characters and images found their place in Aloysius Bertrand’s writing, and the way that Maurice Ravel subsequently played with the ideas to conjure such a virtuosic and evocative work.

In 1842, a strange collection of poems by French writer Aloysius Bertrand was posthumously published with the title Gaspard de la Nuit. The publication is widely thought to mark the beginning of prose poetry in French literature, but the collection remained largely unknown until it was rediscovered by two of the most significant French literary figures of the 19th Century, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.

When Ravel was shown the work, some 50 yearslater, something in Bertrand’s vivid depictions, full of fantastical creatures, spectral netherworlds and gothic darkness, connected with the composer’s own fascination with mysteries of the unknown. But there was something else about the rhythm and syntax of Bertrand’s writing that Ravel found intriguing, and which seemed to provide a perfect vehicle for the ideas that had been swirling in his imagination and had been briefly glimpsed in other works of the period.

Illustration of the character Scarbo
Front page of Maurice Ravel's manuscript for Gaspard de la Nuit Image Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Listen to the program here …

Gaspard de la Nuit — Into the Music 6th April 2013

Caroline Almonte—Concert pianist

Stephen McIntyre—Concert pianist and Principal Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

Roy Howat—Pianist, scholar and specialist on the topic of French piano music

Helen Abbott—Senior Lecturer in the Department of French at The University of Sheffield

Emily Kilpatrick—Pianist, scholar and specialist on French piano music



Helen Morse—Actor

Caroline Lafargue—French Language Broadcaster

David Tredinnick—Actor

William Zappa—Actor



Producer—Michael Shirrefs

Sound Engineer—Carey Dell


Further Information:

Roy Howat

Helen Abbott

Stephen McIntyre

Gaspard de la Nuit by Aloysius Bertrand—the complete text in French on Project Gutenberg

Vlado Perlemuter plays Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit on YouTube

Maison Ravel

Academie Ravel



© 2012 — Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN