Gaspard de la nuit: Behind the Scenes

When I first decided to do the Ravel project, I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to play Gaspard de la nuit. If you’re not in the classical piano world, you might not know that this suite has something of a reputation. It is considered one of the hardest suites in the entire piano repertoire, and of course that makes it one of Ravel’s most commonly played pieces, because it’s great for competitions.

I was scared of the piece. I had seen fellow students and colleagues play it throughout my degrees, and I had absolutely no desire to tackle it myself. My goal for completing the Ravel project was to have everything performed and recorded within five years, so I figured Gaspard would be more of a year five kind of deal. I wanted to give myself plenty of time for my technique to develop to the point where I could even think about tackling it.

Those plans were changed in my last semester of my master’s degree. It was April 2020. We were smack in the middle of pandemic lockdown, all my classes were on Zoom, and my master’s recital was canceled. I was looking for new motivation and purpose for piano. In my piano etudes class one day, we had a guest lecturer come in who was a friend of our professor; composer Timo Andres. He gave a presentation on the sorts of things he’d been up to in the last few weeks in order to keep his own musical momentum going, and one of those things he shared was a score follow video of a piece he wrote. I think the intention was to show off the skill he had developed in editing together a video with audio of his own playing and video of the sheet music, but I was much more interested in the actual piece itself. It was titled Old Ground, and it was specifically written as being inspired by none other than Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, specifically the middle piece, Le gibet.

I knew immediately that I needed to program the pieces together. All of my Ravel concerts had been carefully programmed with pieces to complement and contrast with each other, usually involving me having to listen to hours upon hours of repertoire to choose pieces that musically aligned, but this was being handed to me on a silver platter! It was LITERALLY WRITTEN TO GO TOGETHER! Easiest programming ever! Between Gaspard and Old Ground I already had more than 35 minutes of music, so it wasn’t even going to be that difficult to fill in the rest.

As far as overcoming my fear of Gaspard… I’m not really the type of person who plans things out of order. If I’m going to plan something for five years from now I’d better have everything else related to that thing between now and then planned out as well. So I knew right away that I couldn’t program this concert now and perform it in 2024, because while I did have my next Ravel concert planned out (the one I performed in May 2021), I didn’t have anything after that figured out. So I committed. It would be my next concert. Timing… TBD. I knew it would depend on when we started performing again given the pandemic, not to mention how long it would take me to even learn Gaspard.


With my discovery of Old Ground and deciding to program it with Gaspard, I was already well on my way to a complete program, but I still had a lot of decisions to make. The first step was to decide the instrumentations I wanted to include. My first three concerts each had some solo piano, some art songs, and some chamber music (piano and at least one other non-voice instrument), so that those attending the concert could hear a variety of instrument styles even with very similar musical styles over the course of a single program.

I quickly decided to make the Gaspard concert a full solo piano concert. I already had 35 minutes of solo music between Gaspard and Old Ground, which is half or even more than half of a concert, I was running out of chamber music by Ravel to even do (he didn’t write that much that included piano), and I hadn’t done a live solo recital in New York since 2019.

With that decided, I moved onto the next stage of programming, which was choosing specific pieces that fit with the theme and mood. All three pieces of Gaspard de la nuit are each based on different poems by Aloysius Bertrand from a poetry collection of the same title. My thread of programming so far seemed to be Le gibet, the middle piece of the suite, as Old Ground was based on it.

The poem of Le gibet is simple and vivid, describing a scene in which the observer sees a hanged man on a gibbet in the distance against the hazy heat of the desert, and hears a bell tolling from a nearby town. The piece is slow and ominous, with wide chords to depict the openness of the desert and a repeated B-flat throughout the piece imitating the tolling bell and very little pure melody. Old Ground takes a different approach, beginning with a repeating ostinato in fifths but slowly morphing into a more minimalistic melodic journey instead of a harmonic-focused one. It isn’t until the end that we get the dread of Le gibet, a full page of slow recitative-style chords accompanying a singer that cannot make a sound.

At first I was frustrated trying to think of what to program alongside these pieces. Ondine and Scarbo weren’t nearly as depressing, but they were still not exactly lighthearted pieces. How could I make a program that I didn’t end up having to market as “Music about Death: Sadness Guaranteed”? We’ve been in a pandemic, for crying out loud. People definitely didn’t need more depression.

The answer was obvious once I actually gave thought to it; Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, or Pavane for a Dead Princess. It’s easily one of his most famous works if not the most famous, it’s for solo piano, and it fits the death concept without actually being a piece about death!

Of course this was only another 6 minutes to add to my program, so I still needed more, but I was definitely on the right track.


I still remember where I was when I chose the next two pieces to go on my Gaspard program in addition to Gaspard itself and Old Ground. I don’t remember exactly when it was, whether it was March or April or May 2020 (I’m sure those months were a blur to just about everyone living in New York at the time), but I know that we were in lockdown and my husband and I were on a walk together on Frost Lane in Peekskill. Going out for a walk was our only chance to get out of the house and get a bit of exercise in, and it wasn’t so hot yet that it was uncomfortable. I remember we had just passed the intersection with the Bear Mountain and were about to start our way down the hill. We were discussing this concert, what else I could program.

I knew I would need to program more than just Gaspard de la nuit for works by Ravel. Thus far in my concerts I had anywhere from two to five pieces on the program by Ravel, a significant enough percentage of the program that there would be no doubt these were Ravel-focused concerts. So we started talking through his other solo piano repertoire. As I said in the last post, once I actually gave thought to it, Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess was an obvious choice. Its title implies it was a dedication to a recently deceased princess, but it was in fact dedicated to a very much alive one, the Princess of Polignac. She was a great admirer and patron of Ravel and his compositions and loved the Pavane. Given that the Pavane was not about a dead princess, when he was questioned about the title, he simply explained that it was meant to be a pavane a princess might have danced to ages ago who is long since dead, simply because time has passed. The piece isn’t happy or bombastic by any means, it’s still a slow, subdued style of dance. However, in the bright key of G major, it manages to find a nice balance between serious and depressing.

Just a few minutes later on this same walk with my husband, another piece came to mind. This one was not by Ravel, but rather by J.S. Bach: his Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. This would be my first time programming Bach in any of the Ravel concerts, because thus far there wasn’t much of a relationship musically or otherwise between the two composers. The piece fit too well to pass up, however—it is one of Bach’s more somber keyboard pieces, with a B-flat ostinato in the prelude eerily similar to that of Le gibet and a slow five-voice fugue. I had already wanted to play the piece for years and never gotten around to it for one reason or another, so this was a perfect opportunity.


With Gaspard de la nuit, Old Ground, Pavane for a Dead Princess, and the Bach Prelude and Fugue all set for the program, I knew my program was almost complete, but it was still missing something. It was still too short for a full-length concert (just under 50 minutes of music), but long enough already that I couldn’t add another major work.

I started by listening to all of Ravel’s shorter piano works I wasn’t as familiar with. With only two Ravel pieces on the program so far, there was certainly room for more. Most of them didn’t fit the mood, but there were two that stood out: his Menuet in C-sharp Minor and Prelude in A Minor. Both of them were just somber enough to program without being too depressing to consider, and were each only a minute long. It was an easy decision to add them. At this point, I tentatively considered my program complete, but it still felt like there was something missing.

Enter my father. My father, Dan Montez, has been composing for many years. He writes primarily choral music, but I had already premiered two chamber works of his that included piano. Unrelated to the Gaspard program, I had asked him jokingly one day if he was ever going to write me something for solo piano. He gave me a sort of look and admitted that he had never thought about it.

Months later, I came over to visit one day and he had a score printed to give to me. It was a solo piano work, titled “Resurgence.” I asked him what the title meant, and he said he wanted it to have a sense of hope that we will make it out of the pandemic. He downplayed it and said maybe it would make a good encore piece, but maybe wasn’t good enough or long enough to be a serious piece on a program.

As I took the score home to play through it and look it over, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the piece. It was primarily in a minor key, but had an undeniable joy behind it. It starts in what appears to be a depressing place, but quickly gives way to what is lying in wait—an unstoppable, wild energy that cannot be subdued, that continues to resurge and evolve as it meets new ideas and obstacles.

This was it. This was the missing piece on my program, literally. Among all the seriousness, somberness, and death—this was the piece I needed to bring hope, energy, and rebirth to the concert. I told my dad it was going to be on the program, not “just an encore,” as it deserved to be taken seriously. He was thrilled.


Like Le gibet, Ondine and Scarbo, the outer two pieces in the Gaspard suite, are also programmatic. When music is programmatic, it means that it has a distinct and specific storyline associated with it that the music is conveying.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the three pieces of Gaspard de la nuit are each based on different poems by Aloysius Bertrand from a poetry collection of the same title. Ondine is a story about a water spirit who falls in love with a human and tries to convince him to come live in her underwater palace, but he rejects her saying he already loves a human woman. The piece is hundreds, if not thousands of flowing notes representing the watery picture she describes of her palace.

Scarbo, on the other hand, is not quite so picturesque. It is still plenty vivid, something of a night terror, unclear whether it dream or reality, the observer lying frozen in bed while a goblin skitters about the room, vanishing and reappearing, casting shadows and scratching at the walls. The piece is a nightmare in every sense, not just in the poem it describes but also in its difficulty for the performer to play. Ravel intentionally wrote the piece to be a technical challenge, and his music is already difficult without that intention, so with it you get something ridiculous to attempt to play.

Regardless, I am playing it, along with everything else I’ve already described! Overall I have a wonderful mix of pieces, varying from completely programmatic to absolute (the other end of the spectrum). Absolute music is music just for music’s sake, with no story it represents. Performers may assign a story to the music, and the music may still follow the rules of whatever musical form it is using, but there is no dedicated and intentional plot. On my program, some examples of absolute music are the Menuet and Prelude by Ravel, and the Prelude and Fugue by Bach. I chose them for the program for their musical mood, but their titles are just their style of music and have no underlying story.

These two extremes aren’t the only musical possibilities, of course. Plenty of music rests somewhere in the middle, with a descriptive title but not a whole story; Resurgence, Old Ground, or the Pavane for a Dead Princess, for example. We know a bit about the composer’s intentions in writing the piece to get an idea of the character and direction, but it’s up to the performer to fully decide and convey the meaning behind the music.


I wrote the above over the course of the past 10 weeks. I can’t believe the concert is already this Saturday. It has been such a journey choosing and learning this music, and recording it for my first professional solo CD. I will probably include it all inside the CD cover or something. Until then, time to go practice!

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The solo concert itself has also been officially scheduled for January 15th, 2022 at the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco. At one point I thought it would be in the fall, but it turns out concert venues are either closed or all booked up until the new year, and also Gaspard de la nuit is really hard and I definitely needed more time for it to solidify in my fingers.

In addition to that, I've also had two other major projects going on: expanding my Piano at Noon series and a second round of 100 Days of Practice. The expansion of my Piano at Noon series has involved opening up Performance Days for my own piano students to perform, to expand the audience of the series and to give my students performance opportunities. We have had one student Performance Day so far, with the next four already booked out. The non-Performance Days still remain practice livestreams.

This time around with 100 Days of Practice, instead of just recording straight 1-minute clips of a particular piece, the videos I post online are compilations of short clips all of the different pieces I practiced in a given day. I find doing it this way gives a more realistic look into what I get to in a day, and also gives me an easily trackable way to see when the last time was I practiced a piece when I'm watching the videos back myself.

The next few weeks will still be very busy as I prepare to play a recital at a friend's wedding (specifically requested from the bride, a fellow pianist I went to undergrad with), but at least I finally get a break from operas for the next several months! Looking forward to everything coming up with recording and performing!

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