Story telling in music… Ravel’s Ondine

I went to a piano recital at the John Innes centre last night, Milan Miladinovic was playing a varied program, including Bach, Ravel, Chopin & Liszt. He was quite an astonishing pianist, I was captivated! Huge dynamic variation and accuracy in some incredibly technically difficult pieces. In addition to the musical drama, he gave some wonderful introductions to the pieces, almost a master class in interpreting musical elements and compositional components. Sometimes playing sections of a piece to demonstrate a representation of part of a story, but also talking about the composer’s life and the events and thinking of the time, he shifted our attention back and forth between the work’s contextual aspects and its musical components, allowing the two aspects to comment mutually on each other and inform our interpretation of it’s meaning. It was fascinating!

The longest introduction he gave was probably for Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la nuit’. The pieces are an interpretation of the dark poems of Aloysious Bertand. One of the Poems Ravel was interpreting is entitled ‘Ondine’, from the book ‘La nuit et ses prestiges’ – ‘the night and it’s illusions/deceptions’. The original fairy tale of Ondine (the inspiration for Disney’s ‘little mermaid’), is about the attempted seduction of a mortal by a mermaid, which does not relate particularly to the night, but Bertrand’s poems apparently concentrate on the not clearly lit, the dreamlike and the surreal. The music is undeniably watery, with shimmering trills that could be heard as the lights on the waves or the otherworldly tears and laughter of the mermaid.

This morning, inspired by the recital and the story telling, I found a copy of the poem that the work is based on, and a version of the piano piece so that I could read and listen to them together, and try to hear how the story and the music fit together. You can do the same if you like…

I don’t speak French, but if you do, you can read the original in French here

‘Listen! listen! it’s me, it’s Ondine who brushes with these drops of water the resonant diamonds of your window lit by the gloomy moon-light; and there in her silken robe is the lady of the manor contemplating from her balcony the lovely star-bright night and the beautiful sleeping lake.’

‘each ripple is a child of the waves’ swimming with the current, each current is a path winding towards my palace, and my palace is built fluid, at the bottom of the lake, in the triangle of fire earth and air.’

‘Listne! -Listen! – my father strikes the croaking water with a branch of green alder, and my sisters caress with their arms of foam the cool islands of herbs, water lillies and gladioli, or make fun of their sickly, bearded willow that is fishing with rod and line.’

Having murmured her song, she begged me to accept her ring on my finger, so that I would be the husband of an Ondine, and to visit her palace with her, so that I would be king of the lakes. And since I replied that I loved a mortal woman, she wept a few tears, sulking and peevish, then broke into laughter, and vanished in showers of rain that drizzled white across my blue window pain.

I found an excellent essay looking at this particular work, deconstructing the music and the poem in depth here by Siglind Bruhn.

2 thoughts on “Story telling in music… Ravel’s Ondine

  1. Hi, I was searching informations about Ondinet on the net because I read a very interesting book called The Glass Room, by Simon Mawes, in which Ondine, Ravel´s piece as well as the legend, is a theme that repeats itself beautifully throughout the novel. So it was a nice surprise to find the poem.
    Thank you


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