Sviatoslav Richter playing Maurice Ravel’s “Le Gibet,” the second of the suite of pieces for solo piano titled Gaspard de la Nuit: Trois poèmes pour piano d’après Aloysius Bertrand. Recorded live in Moscow, 1954.
“Le gibet” is composed around a grisly subject: in the original poem, the dead occupant of the gibbet (gallows) is described in painstakingly lurid detail. The poem seems to me a great illustration of the macabre extremes the French Romantic poets could often get up to. Even the greatest among them, like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, sometimes tipped the balance into maudlin or slightly ridiculous territory by modern standards. At their best, though, they were clever and dark and chilling, like nothing else that had come before, obsessively seeking out and and reveling in the taboos and extremes of experience, occasionally pausing to stare or glare up at the “blue and blank and unconcerned” sky (to paraphrase Baudelaire).
If you’re wondering exactly what I mean, I wholeheartedly recommend this English translation of the Rimbaud poem “My Little Lovelies” as a jumping-in point. It’s a deeply satisfying farewell and revenge piece, a sendoff of old lovers, who are presented as rather crusty ballerinas…. If you go in expecting Victorian milquetoast sentimentality you’ll get a shock, so consider yourself warned. I wish the translator was given credit, because it’s my favorite among the several I’ve read. I read French a little, but need a translation to get the full feel of something complex without a lot of dictionary work.
Someday I will spend some time with a Ravel biography and find out why he chose Bertrand’s poems as a jumping-off point; I am curious. To be honest, they don’t strike me as very good, although I have no complaints about the resulting Ravel pieces!