Ondine Anthony Gilbert

Ondine cover
Text/libretto by
Aloysius Bertrand
11 mins

Voice, accompanied Voice(s) & 1-3 Instruments

1 Soprano, 1 Recorder, 1 Harpsichord, 1 Violoncello

Purchasing options

Score and parts ISMN 57020-711-4 £29.00 Buy now

soprano, recorder, harpsichord and cello

Programme note

The history of this eleven-minute cycle is complex.  The Song was written for Alison Wells and John Turner to perform at a 70th-birthday concert for Sir John Manduell in the Barbirolli Room in September 1998.  Then on 13th May 1999, as Tim Williams telephoned me to commission a work for Psappha, I had the first of a series of mild seizures – brought on not by Tim’s kind request but by some earlier disturbing information.  Their effect, with its attendant amnesia,  was to impart to the ensuing months a curious dreamlike quality, with an inner landscape in which the nightmare prose-poems of Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit chimed like ghostly bells. Bertrand was a contemporary of Chopin, and died, like him, of tuberculosis. Though he lived his brief adult life in Paris, the imagery is less Parisian than Dijonnais, for this was where Bertrand had spent his impressionable adolescence.  I had waited over forty years to get to grips with their strange visions, and now, magically, they seemed very real.  So the cycle of five poems I then chose was taken, with minor adaptations, from Book 3, ironically named La nuit et ses prestiges (Night and its glamours), and the completed work was first performed by Psappha with Alison Wells at Liverpool Hope University early in 2000, under the titleVers de Lune.

But I was still haunted by the sound of soprano and recorder, and needed to bring four of those five poems back into that sound-world – hence what we have now:  three short, ironic moon-visions, framing the two halves of the now complete Ondine poem, slightly adapted.

My setting is in the original French;  I’ve made the translation below in case of need. 


Le Clair  .  .  .

                 Oh!  qu’il est doux, quand l’heure tremble au clocher, la nuit, de regarder la lune qui a le nez fait comme un carolus d’or!


Le Chant

                 - « Écoute! - Écoute! - C’est moi, c’est Ondine qui frole de ces gouttes d’eau les losanges sonores de ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la lune;  et voici en robe de moire, la dame châtelaine qui contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et le beau lac endormi.


                » Chaque flot est un ondin qui nage dans le courant, chaque courant est un sentier qui serpente vers mon palais, et mon palais est bâti fluide, au fond du lac, dans le triangle du feu, de la terre et de l’air.


                » Écoute! - Écoute! - Mon père bat l’eau coassante d’une branche d’aulne verte, et mes sœurs caressent de leurs bras d’écume les fraîches îles d’herbes, de nénuphars et de glaïeuls, ou se moquent du saule caduc et barbu qui pêche à la ligne! »


Le Fou

                 La lune peignait ses cheveux avec un démêloir d’ébène qui argentait d’une pluie de vers luisants les collines, les prés et les bois.


Le Récit

                Ma chanson murmurée, je lui suppliai de recevoir mon anneau à son doigt pour être l’époux d’une Ondine, et de visiter avec moi mon palais pour être le roi des lacs.


                Et comme il me répondait qu’il aimait une mortelle, boudeuse et dépitée, je pleurai quelques larmes, poussai un éclat de rire, et m’évanouis en giboulées qui ruisselèrent blanches le long de ses vitraux bleus.


.  .  .  de Lune

                 Et moi, il me semblait, - tant la fièvre est incohérente! - que la lune, grimant sa face, me tirait la langue comme un pendu! 


after ALOYSIUS BERTRAND (1807-1841): 

Gaspard de la Nuit, Livre trois:  La Nuit et ses prestiges



Moonlight (1)

                 Oh, how sweet it is, when the night hour throbs in the bell-tower, to watch the moon, with its nose like a golden sovereign!


The Song

                 “Can you hear?  Can you hear?  It is I, it is Ondine who sweeps these drops of water up against the ringing diamonds of your window-pane, lit by wan moonbeams;  while here, in her gown of watered silk, is the lady of the castle, gazing from her balcony at the beauty of the starry night and the sleeping lake.


                “Each ripple is a water-sprite swimming with the current, each current a pathway snaking towards my palace, and my palace is built of waters, in the depths of the lake, in the triangle of fire, earth and air.


                “Can you hear?  Can you hear?  My father whips the frog-croaking water with a branch of green alder, and my sisters caress the cool islands of weeds, lilies and gladioli with their arms of foam, or make fun of the drooping bearded willow and its show of angling!”


 The Lunatic

                 The moon was combing its hair with an ebony comb which showered the woods, hills and meadows with a silvery rain of glow-worms.


The Narrative

                My song once murmured, I begged him to take my ring upon his finger and become an Ondine’s spouse, to visit me in my palace and become the king of the lakes.


                And when he replied that he loved a mortal woman, sulky and scorned I wept a few tears, burst into a peal of laughter and vanished in a shower of droplets which streamed white down the blue-tinted glass of his long windows.


 Moonlight (2)

                 And to me, it seemed – so dazed was I with fever – that the moon grimaced at me, and stuck out its tongue like a hanged man!


Translation © Anthony Gilbert, 1999





Lesley-Jane Rogers, with John Turner, Jonathan Price and Janet Simpson, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 16th October 2004
  • 16 Oct 2004 |

    The Barbirolli Room, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester