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Marcelle Meyer, French pianist, plays Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit”

By September 2, 2020March 19th, 2023No Comments

When pianists think of Gaspard de la nuit (“gaspard” comes from an old Persian word meaning “treasurer”), their hearts stop. Ravel’s masterpiece, as famous for its depiction of Aloysius Bertrand’s poems as it is infamous for stunning virtuosity, is like a realistic dream, a lucid world of darkness and terror evoked through refinement and detail. Ravel brings to life Bertrand’s poems using a new and forward-looking technique, a classical form, and a vast knowledge of keyboard composition to convey the likes of mermaids, monsters and corpses. Though daring technical devices and harmonies were an integral part of Ravel’s realization of the poems, the sheer technical accomplishment of the work is in itself an outstanding feat. The music extends the capabilities of the ten-fingered, two-handed pianist, and in the process makes Gaspard de la nuit one of the most challenging and virtuosic compositions ever written. Yet, for all of its remarkable innovations, Gaspard de la nuit is confined to a strict, classical structure that is in many ways like a conventional sonata: an opening movement of moderate speed, a central slow movement, and a fast, impressive finale (Perlemuter, 1988). However, this exacting approach to compositional form did not hamper Ravel’s realization of the poetry; in fact, it was with a classical form that Ravel could follow Bertrand’s work like a blueprint, thematically reconstructing every dancing demon and burst of water. Ravel was a master of using the piano– everything from scales and arpeggios to rhythms and articulations unique to the instrument– to create specific objects and emotions. Detailed, almost tangible images make Gaspard de la nuit unforgettable, defining its im- mortality as a masterpiece which is both a brilliant and ground-breaking technical study, and a hauntingly evocative musical recreation of Bertrand’s poetry.

Ravel focused on particular pianistic challenges in his “transcendental” writing; “the solution of technical problems was his primary purpose in composing Gaspard de la nuit” (Dubbiosi, 1967). For example, parts of Ondine consist of lightning-fast arpeggios with each hand in contrary motion on different tonal keys (creating dissonance). Other technical demands include the interaction between the hands, glissandi, repeated notes, and functions of the thumb.

The division of melodies and chords between hands had been used before by Liszt’s rival Sigismond Thalberg, who created a three-voiced effect by having an inner melody surrounded by two accompaniments. Ravel created more range through “doubling the melody in octaves and the placement of the harmonic accompaniment within the limits of the melody voices” (Dubbiosi, 1967). When one hand plays the melody, the other joins in the melody or plays accompanying notes in such proximity that specific hands playing certain notes are no longer obvious.

Glissandi are used primarily for imagery in Ondine. The conventional glissando is a sweeping motion with one finger over the white keys of the piano (Liszt used glissandi in the “classic” form in many of his virtuoso showpieces). However, Ravel bids the pianist use the black keys, which is not only very difficult, but also creates tonalities less prominent in Western music.

The use of repeated notes “was to become a hallmark of Ravel’s style” (Hopkins, 1986). Repeated notes are divided between octaves, shared by both hands, played unimaginably fast,and, famously, form the integral structure of Le Gibet.

Marcelle Meyer (Piano)
May 22, 1897 – November 17, 1958

The French pianist, Marcelle Meyer, received her first piano lessons at the age of five from her sister Germaine. Marcelle entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1911 at the age of fourteen enrolling first in Marguerite Long’s class. She quickly changed to Alfred Cortot’s class. A period under the tutelage of Ricardo Viñes opened her up to the world of Ravel. However she received her essential lessons in Spanish music not from Viñes but from José Iturbi.

In 1917, she married the actor Pierre Bertin who introduced her to the circle of Eric Satie and his friends. Meyer immediately became Satie’s favourite pianist. He called her his ‘pretty little lady’. She was still only twenty years old. She worked with Debussy shortly before his death on his Préludes and was the first to play them in recital at Salle Gaveau, a recital notable also for being the first devoted wholly to Debussy’s work..

In 1918, at a Lyre et Palletes concert (a series of concerts where artists and musicians could meet), Marcelle Meyer gave the debut performance of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands with the composer at her side. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship. In April 1920 Ravel invited her to play with him a two piano version of La Valse privately before Igor Stravinsky, Diaghilev and F. Poulenc. Meyer became the favorite pianist of Les Six.

Not only was she regarded as a faithful and brilliant pianist but for most French composers of the early 20th century, she was their muse.
Marcelle Meyer made her first recording in 1925, in England – I. Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music and Albeniz’ Navarra. She premiered I. Stravinsky’s Serenade for Piano. In the late 1920’s her career took a more international turn, invited by Willem Mengelberg to Amsterdam, by Thomas Beecham to London, by Ernest Ansermet, Adrian Boult, Pierre Monteux. In 1930 she was invited to Budapest by Richard Strauss to play his Burleske under his direction at a festival devoted to his work. She was one of the few pianists invited to play at the 10th Salzburg Festival. In contrast her career at home seemed very low-key indeed.

Meyer did not receive an invitation to play at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire until 1940.

One of Meyer’s greatest adventures also began at the end of the 1940’s, and indeed her greatest legacy – her collaboration with Les Discophiles Français and the sound engineer André Charlin. It was for this label she made the greater part of her recordings, producing some of the most remarkable records ever devoted to French music. But not only do we have François Couperin, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel and Rameau, there is also Scarlatti, J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, Schubert and I. Stravinsky. For an artist who was at the forefront of the music of her day and centre of her circle, it is interesting to see how she could embrace the composers of the eighteenth century. Her phrasing pure and fluid, capturing the deep spirit of the music, never allowing the ornament to interrupt the melodic line, her rediscovery and reinstatement of Rameau was perhaps her most miraculous achievement. However, W.A. Mozart was always her first artistic love.

Les Six:
Les Six was the collective name for six French composers who were organized as a group by Jean Cocteau in 1917. The members were Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre.