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Orientalism in Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit


In this dissertation, I study the Eastern influences on the music of the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), in particular, the composer's masterpiece, Gaspard de la nuit (1908). This piano composition consists of three movements, "Ondine," "Le Gibet," and "Scarbo," each based on poetry by Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). Ravel intended the work to be more difficult than a composition by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) called Islamey: Oriental Fantasy (1869). This latter work was written after the composer visited the Caucasus. In it, he demonstrates Eastern influence through the use of Tatar melodies and Middle Eastern rhythmic patterns. Considered to be one of the most technically demanding pieces in the piano literature, this work inspired Ravel to create a composition that required even greater virtuosity from the performer.

The study of such material poses particular challenges. For one thing, the Eastern elements are presented in a complex web of pianistic virtuosity and personal interpretation. Furthermore, the Eastern or non-Western components are not always easy to pinpoint or identify. The material appropriated may be impressionistic or stylized rather than literal or explicit. In the case of musical Impressionism, the influence of Indonesian gamelan music has been identified in the musical works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, particularly in his Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose). Meanwhile, numerous composers have derived folk elements from Spain, Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa, and jazz.

In my study, I pursue yet another connection, namely the influence of the Caucasus and Central Asia upon Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. In this case, I give particular attention to the traditional performance style of the santur (Iranian hammer dulcimer) and to related stylistic features, in such areas as texture, modality, and rhythm, as well as to stylistic intricacies characteristic of Ravel's music. As a pianist, myself, I examine such features as fingering, hand distribution, dynamics, pedaling, and touch adjustments employed in piano playing. I also look into rhythmic motifs that can be related to a variety of Middle Eastern origins. By conducting this research, I hope to shed further light on the links between Western art music and world music and to gain a better understanding of the creative aspects of music making in general.

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