Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de La Nuit

I chose today’s piece by Ravel, to accompany a description of my first days in Paris (see essay below). The work, for solo piano, ranks as on of the most challenging works for that instrument and showcases this musical Impressionist at the height of his powers. Influenced by Chopin and his teacher, Faure, and colleague and mentor, Debussy, Ravel chose as his inspiration, three turn of the century, symbolist poems in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. These have ominous names like, “Ondine,” who was a water sprite, “Le Gibet,” (the gallows) and “Scarbo,” which was about an evil, medieval dwarf.

Since the first movement focuses on a water sprite, Ravel pulls out all the stops on the technique invented by Debussy of repeating a cascade of notes in one hand and chords in the other to create the sound equivalent of light shimmering on water. You can imagine what Ravel does with a piece called “The Gallows.” He starts with a simple two beat syncopated rhythm played on the B flat key, which sounds like a demented church bell pealing out a death knell. The chords and progressions that Ravel chose to lay on top of this base line, have a bleak and haunting quality to them that evokes a cart of prisoners, bound for their execution. The last movement depicts the line in the poem, in which the dwarf drops from the ceiling, spins on one foot and then rolls across the floor. It starts out a slow and haunting introduction, before taking off at a break-neck speed. This movement echoes some of Debussy’s works, especially “Homage au Rameau,” but Ravel himself said he was trying to outdo a piece by a Russian composer, Mily Balakirev. The latter’s work, “Islamey,” was considered the most difficult piece ever written. Ravel did the Russian one better and pianists today still say of this piece that you need wrists and fingers of steel to play it.

Ravel Biography

Finding Friends in Paris

Earlier on this site, I implied that it was just me against the world upon my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. In fact, I did have a contact that my friend Thom Klem had given me before I left. He had gone to high school with a friend whose American father had brought back a French bride after fighting in France during World War II. This friend had a sister named Catherine, who had come to study in Paris on her junior year abroad from Sweetbriar College.

My first order of business my second day in Paris, therefore, was to find Catherine. She lived down by Place de l’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement. Now the 13th Arrondissement starts where Rue Mouffetard ends after its long descent down from the Latin Quarter. In 1977, this area was in a transitional state as it moved from an Algerian ghetto, in which old characteristic Parisian shops were being razed into a high density, urban area of apartment towers and shopping malls. This gentrification of Paris had started under the Prime Minister, George Pompidou. That plan, by the way, gave Paris its first sore thumb, the Tour Montparnasse. The was the first and last skyscraper to be built within the city walls, in which no building was supposed to be built taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The Tour Montparnasse was such a blight on the Parisian landscape, that the surrealist film director, Luis Bunuel, lambasted it in his film, The Phantom of Liberty. In that film, a sniper, armed with a high power rifle, goes to the observation deck and starts picking off pedestrians one at a time. Since the tower is so high, no one on the ground can hear the report of the gun. Pictured from the ground, each victim’s death become a grotesque, silent pantomime as their bodies jerk, they realize they’ve been shot, and then fall dead.

Eventually the police rush the sniper and take him prisoner. He is tried and found guilty but then receives a handshake from the judge and is set on his way. This is a beautiful metaphor for the soul-killing that Pompidou’s urban renewal visited on the life of Paris. The tower is a symbol of capitalism and corporate greed and implies the authorities are in collusion with the bankers.

The Place D’Italie in 1977 was a soul-less place, with little green to be found and few pedestrians on the street, since all the old shops had been destroyed. I found the right street. It was small and narrow and overshadowed by two huge apartment towers. On the corner stood a remnant from old Paris: a small, ramshackle bar from which Algerian music–punctuated by the sound of a pinball machine–blared. Following the street numbers, I walked past a garage, a bakery, and another bar.

I realized that the apartment was actually across the street in the apartment towers. The address was a bit vague, and I entered the wrong tower. As the address indicated the thirteenth floor, this was not too fun, especially since the elevator required a few centimes to run and the whole place was dark. This made the person in the apartment I did stop at reluctant to open her door even though I was a fellow American. She did whisper through the crack that I had the wrong tower and sent me on my way.

In the right tower, on the right floor, in front of the right door, I was dismayed to find myself carrying on a conversation in French with a man. This guy looked as French as anyone else I had seen so far and I had no reason to suspect him of not being so. I asked about Catherine, and he seemed a bit embarrassed to find out I was hunting for her. I explained that I was an American friend of a friend, and instantly he started speaking to me in English. He was Catherine’s boyfriend, Jerry, a fellow student at Sweetbriar.

I was a bit crestfallen. I had been fantasizing that I would fall in love with this woman I had never seen before and end up having a wonderful time in Paris. Jerry told me Catherine would be back at 4:30 that afternoon, so after talking to him for about an hour, I decided to go out sight seeing.

It was not too salubrious a neighborhood, but I was surprised to find a huge indoor mall at the base of another towering apartment complex nearby. In the mall, I found that it was an uneasy marriage between American and traditional French shopping styles. It had two levels. The ground floor contained all the clothing stores; the basement housed the traditional butchers, bakers, wine shops, and creameries. It was odd; there was a bookshop down there too. I wondered whether Parisians consider ideas a type nourishment.

Back at the Place D’Italie, I took the subway up to the other side of the river and visited the church, St Eustache. This huge edifice, the largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, sits right next to the stock exchange and the former site of Les Halles. Les Halles, one of Paris’ most characteristic markets, monstrously big from the look of it, had recently been razed to make way for a big underground shopping complex. It made Paris look odd, this gaping hole amid the run down buildings of the area.

St Eustache was a 2nd Century Martyr, and the present church was erected between 1532 and 1640 on the site of an earlier, 13th Century chapel to St. Agnes. Stylistically the church started out in the shape of a Gothic cathedral, but the builders changed their minds part way through and the decoration is classical. Inside the church, I was impressed by its size and beauty. It was odd that I chose to visit this church before Notre Dame. I knew of it, however, from my French professor the semester before who had given a lecture on the bizarre sites of Paris, of which he number this church. Richelieu and Mme de Pompadour had been baptized there, and Louis XIV took his first communion at its altar. Though turned into the Ministry of Agriculture during the Revolution and having been gutted in a fire in 1844, it was restored last century and boasts some wonderful stained glass windows. It also contains the paintingPilgrims at Emmaus, by Reubens. Because of its acoustics, concerts are given here on a magnificent organ, which continues a long musical tradition: Berlioz premiered his Te Deum here in 1855.

After this little cultural diversion, I found a restaurant nearby that had a ridiculously low priced menu. It wasn’t great, but it was filling and it was my first French meal in a French Restaurant. In truth, I later realized it was only a bar that served sit down lunches. I had a rabbit stew of some sort, a salad, bread and wine. I grabbed the mustard that was on the table and put a dollop on my plate. It was then that I realized that this mustard was made the same way as Chinese mustard: mustard powder and water. And my mouth and nostrils were almost seared.

The walk had tired me out and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to my hotel and took a nap. Around 3:30, I rose and went back to Catherine’s. She was extremely gracious and was really overjoyed to find that I was a friend of Thom Klem’s. As it turned out, Klem had gone to school with her brothers who were several years older than her, but she still counted me as a friend by extension. She made me feel at home.

Jerry was nice too. He offered to let me stay in his room at the foyer (dormitory) where he was officially staying out in a small suburb called Fontenay Aux Roses. Since he lived with Catherine, he never used the room and he was willing to let me stay there until I found a place of my own. I returned to my hotel feeling much better. Not too shabby, I thought. After just one day in Paris I had some contacts, a place to stay for free, and a ready-made community that I could hang out with. Unfortunately, taking this tack would result in a few deleterious repercussions.  But that is for another post.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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