Case Study: Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit, 'Le Gibet'
Pedal-ostinato Bb sounds throughout the piece. Not in all the bars is it exactly the same rhythmic pattern (due to changes of meter and occasional other purposes) but the listener is aware of its presence. Its registral position is in the middle octave; in later parts of the piece it appears also as a long pedal-tone in low register. Although it is always the same pitch, sometimes we are aware of its tonal function and sometimes not. Its ‘meaning’ is changing from tonal to formal, from formal to sonorous, and back.
Written on the text of A. Bertrand, “it is a musical landscape of the singular, breath-taking image of a lonely corpse reddened by the setting sun” (Eccles, 2004). In the original poem the not-yet-dead man is hanging on a gibbet in a desert. A witness of this sight hears steady sounds and contemplates on where these sounds could come from (cricket, fly, scarab beetle?). At the end of the poem the hanging man is dead and the witness realizes that the constant sound is the tolling of the bells, somewhere in the distance.
Being put in programmatic context, we could speculate that the ostinato theme (Fig. 1) presents the tolling bells. It is the sound that connects all the other images, as it is creating a firm thread leading us through the landscape. This idea will prove fruitful in the sections where the tonal meaning of Bb is temporary not so clear.
The sonorous language of the piece is based on quintal chords, seventh- and ninth-chords, with influences of jazz harmonies. Instead of major or minor keys, Ravel uses a number of modes, perhaps preferring Phrygian and Aeolian. More than that, he doesn’t restrict tone collection to traditional modes exclusively: through various alterations the modal language becomes even richer. Raised fourth and flat fifth appear very often in minor-third modes. However, the modality is mixed with tonality, through occasional use of functional chord progressions and other tonal gestures. The very interesting tone-collections and their gradual modifications and modulations in this piece are out of scope of this essay. Therefor I have chosen for simplification and reduction of most of the tone collections with salient tonic to 1) those with ‘major flavor’ (having a M3), and 2) those with ‘minor flavor’ (having a m3). In the analysis, the latter with be indicated with the capital letter followed by a lowercase ‘m’ (e.g Ebm). ‘Tonal-functional ears’ of the listener will occasionally recognize tonal gestures even when the tone collection features uncommon alterations. For example, in mm.6-7, one could feel a kind of a minor key (despite the flat fifth). The tone-collection in mm.6-7 is actually a pentachord of diminished scale, but in case it is not recognized as such, the chance is big that it will be perceptively categorized as a variant of minor (the full, annotated score is presented in the film at the end of this essay). As will be clear at the end of this analysis, one of the factors that strongly influence (aural) determining of the key-center is the ostinato tone.
It comes as no surprise that functional position of pedal tone is not always clear in such tonal systems. The ‘bi-tonal feel’ throughout the first phrase (from m.3) teaches the listener that harmonic relations will not always be straight-forward. The beginning (Fig.1) promotes two modes as home-keys: Bb Phrygian and Eb Aeolian.
The first Très lent reiterations of Bb note pave the ground for the ‘home-space’. The appearance of the first chord brings in uncertainty, as it opens the space for two possibilities: the particular tone-collection (Eb-Bb-F) frames two (tonic?) chords, Eb and Bb. The tone collection facilitates both modes. Harmonic motion (rather than progression) is based on parallel quintal chords, which is not contributing to the establishment of tonal hierarchy. Another non-directive factor is the absence of leading tone (first leading tone - of yet another mode - is appearing in m.10).  The factor that influences not only the perception of the mode, but also the perception of various musical events in this piece, is the interaction of multiple perceptible layers. As will be clear also later in this text, melodic and harmonic layers are often in a conflicting or even competitive relation. In the opening of Le Gibet, there are (at least) three salient threads: the ostinato, the chord progression, and the melody (F - Db - Eb - Cb - F). Interestingly, the melodic layer is cooperative with both ostinato layer (suggesting the Bb-center), and chordal layer (suggesting Eb-center). The listeners less used to extended harmonies would probably (perceptively) choose the more simple relation - the one resulting in Bb Phrygian interpretation.
Although there are arguments for both Bb and Eb as the tonal center, for the current topic it is exactly this ambiguousness of the mode that matters most. Put in the programmatic context, we could speculate that this uncertainty refers to the uncertainty of the observer in the Bertrand’s poem: the observer does not know what that constant sound actually is.
The (tonal) function of Bb could be defined as the point of reference.
Reiterating a single pitch in the opening of a piece could be understood as fanfare pedal. If that would be the case in Le Gibet, the first bass note, Eb, would be heard as the tonic, and fanfare-pattern would be fully realized. However, not every listener will have this aural interpretation. Different than the opening of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante (discussed in the chapter on fanfare model), the opening of Le Gibet is not necessarily recognized as an ‘announcing’ gesture. The opening of Ravel’s piece lacks metrical saliency, in order to be perceived as a pattern. The pattern does exist (albeit misleading for the determining of the meter), but the introduction is not long enough to facilitate its discovery. In case the listener does assume that the length of the pattern is equal to four beats, and that it is being repeated in m.2, she will certainly be surprised to hear the ‘actual beginning’ before the pattern is rounded. In either case, there is no acceleration involved, which suggests a stable nature of the ostinato, a foundation, rather than ‘the other’.
The listener does not expect the ostinato to stop and I believe that this is relevant for its ‘working’ in the perception. This explains the (at least possible) perception of Bb as a tonal center in complex tonal setting such as around m.26, which will be discussed shortly. What influences this non-expectation of change (rather than an expectation of staying unchanged)? One of the main actors, I believe, are the form, and the acquaintance with pedal/drone models. From the initiation of the first phrase it is clear that this pedal does not have high harmonic energy (cooperative interaction of, among others, the key-ambiguity, sonorous consonance of the pedal, the position of the pedal-pitch in higher register). This pedal-ostinato does not require any particular continuation, and probably have another function or position in this piece. After registering that the ostinato hasn’t stopped after the introduction, the listener assumes the possibility that it will function as an agent of formal differentiation. This assumption increases the probability that the pedal will stop at the beginning of the next section. When it continues sounding after motif b (m.6) has lounged, the expectation shifts to the next hierarchical level (the first two motifs become grouped).
 Analytical strategies could emphasize the non-logic of building the whole piece around the dominant. On the other hand, the power of the first bass note could establish its pitch as the tonal/modal center. Listeners used to modal hearing of flamenco music would not necessarily take the first Eb as the tonic. Taking into account Ravel’s relation to Spanish music, Bb Phrygian would not be a strange interpretation. However, my own listening experience has proved that theoretical considerations do not always reflect the way this piece is perceived. The factor that strongly influences the listening is the focus of attention. The reader is encouraged to listen to Le Gibet focusing on the pedal ostinato, and to compare that impression with the impression after focusing to the bass line and the chords.
 It is possible that the reader has a different aural experience, due to the differences in the aural context in which the music events of Le Gibet are perceived (e.g. musical background or particular focus). In that case, I invite the reader to take a slightly different focus, and listen to this piece from the perspective suggested in this essay.
 In some aspects, this ostinato reminds us of the discussed rhythmic pedal in the accompanying voices model. Common elements are: overall presence, (almost) constant rhythmic ostinato, registral position in the upper part of the texture. However, it is lacking a steady pulsation, so characteristic of the model. Next to this, it is harmonically not integrated in the most chords of the piece.
 The bar numbers are indicated in case the reader prefers reading with the score at hand. The link to the full score is (be sure to open it in new window):
Otherwise, proceed without the score, and just follow the story in a more general way. As I have already mentioned, the annotated score will be shown in the movie at the end of the essay.