The cycle Miroirs was first announced by Ravel to his fellow "Apaches" who eventually became dedicatees of all five pieces. Written in 1904-05, the cycle was premiered in 1906 in Salle Erard by Ricardo Viñes. Most of the pieces are characterised by a hitherto unparalleled formal freedom that may have been a result of a comment made by Debussy to Ricardo Viñes regarding Debussy's D'un cahier d'esquisses (1903), composed with the intuit of keeping a sense of improvisation. Viñes transmitted the comment to the group, and Ravel apparently showed great enthusiasm for the idea.
Later he wrote: " Miroirs marked a change in my harmonic development which was great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point".
He ascribed particular constructive significance to this cycle, in its use of Symbolist correspondences, as suggested in Shakepeare's Julius Caesar : "The eye sees not itself/But by reflection, by some other things."
According to Léon-Paul Fargue, Apache poet and dedicatee of the piece, Noctuelles are night moths "which take clumsy flight from barn to barn to tie themselves to other beams".
Concerning Oiseaux tristes , Ravel wrote: "The earliest of these pieces - and, it seems to me, the most characteristic - is Oiseaux tristes ' . . . In this work, I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a very sombre forest, during the hottest hours of summertime". This piece was dedicated to Viñes, who considered it "a Japanese print", whereas Ravel commented that it was fun to dedicate to a pianist a piece that was not in the least "pianistic".
Une barque sur l'océan is the only piece in the set without an original metronome mark. Ravel's orchestration of it was performed once in 1907 and then withdrawn by the composer, to be published only posthumously. Gaston Carraud criticised it in La liberté as "a confusing kaleidoscope". The fluid and sweeping arpeggios depicting the waves merited the remark comme une harpe by the composer in Vlado Perlemuter's score, although in the orchestrated version Ravel has used celesta.
Alborada del gracioso is a combination of a seguidilla and a serenade by a jester in the middle section. Ravel affirmed that the structure of the piece is "as strict as that of a Bach fugue". It was orchestrated - more successfully than its predecessor - by the composer thirteen years later and performed in 1919. The orchestration was commissioned by Serge Dyagilev for a composite ballet that also included Ravel's transcription of Chabrier's Menuet pompeux , premiered in London in 1920. The spirit of this work continues in Ravel's opera L'Heure espagnole (1909).
Ravel has experimented with the aural landscape of La Vallée des cloches a decade earlier in his 1897 work for two pianos Entre cloches , part of Sites auriculaires . Commenting to Robert Casadesus that the counterpoint of bells was "inspired by Parisian church bells tolling at noon " Ravel continued to be inspired by the bells in several other pieces (La cloche engloutie, L'heure espagnole, Gaspard de la nuit) .
The cycle found its place quickly in the international concert repertoire: Benjamin Britten, for example, studied the cycle as a seventeen-year old during his summer holidays of 1930.
Debussy was very pleased with the first set of Images, published in 1905 by Durand to whom he wrote: "Have you played the Images ...? Without false pride, I feel that these three pieces hold together well, and that they will find their place in the literature of the piano ... to the left of Schumann, or to the right of Chopin ... as you like it." The mirroring images of Reflets dans l'eau are suggested even literally, with the contrary movements of parallel unresolved chords, which at the same time suggest the static quality of a pond. In this piece Debussy's writing for piano reaches a new level of virtuosity in the service of exquisite miniaturist sound-painting. Hommage à Rameau is a Sarabande in a spirit of austerity and seriousness of intention, befitting a tombeau - a piece honouring a memory of a composer by being written in the same style. However, Debussy embedded typical stylistic details into his own texture, successfully conveying affection and passion without slavish imitation. The nature and intent of the piece were not immediately recognised: M. R. Cor's 1909 review poses a rhetorical question: "Is there anything more empty ... anything more coldly boring than, say, his Hommage à Rameau ?" The spirit of Mouvement is akin to the one of Jardins sous la pluie . Perpetual activity in a restricted area results in an effect of swarming or buzzing or a whirring wheel. While its designation and imagery are quite abstract, its main feature - a steady rhythmic pulsation continuously traversing a variety of timbres - is completely dependant on rhythmical precision and exactitude.
The second set of Images, published in 1907, is entirely written on three staves, making easier identification and tracking of horizontal flow and voice distribution. Louis Laloy, Debussy biographer, suggests that the composer was inspired for Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells [ heard ] through the leaves) by the French rural habit of sounding the church bells from All Saints' Day until the Mass of the Dead on All Souls' Day. A whole-tone scale and layering of sounds give the effect of a background shimmer through which emerge melodic fragments, while the whole image of the sound permeating the landscape is accentuated by bell overtones. The title for Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (Descent of the moon upon the temple which used to be) was suggested by the dedicatee, Laloy. Rather than following a programmatic guideline befitting the title, the music transmits an impression of oriental stillness and serenity, particularly through the use of the gamelan effect. Poissons d'or can be understood as either goldfish in a bowl or golden fish on Chinese lacquer, embroidery or Japanese print, according to the source. Its illustrative effects are achieved by extensive use of toccata style, trills and tremolos, a perfect example of music that, by transcending the inherent technical prerequisites, a sovereign and creative interpretation can transform into a work of art.
Aloysius Bertrand wrote his Histoires vermouleux et poudreuses du Moyen Age around 1830 but the collection was only published posthumously in 1842. Ravel was introduced to the work during his student days by Ricardo Viñes who lent him the 1895 edition of the book that Ravel kept for fifteen months. Fascinated by the work, in 1908 Ravel composed Gaspard de la nuit , a set of "three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity", as he called it. Although the cycle was dedicated to Rudolf Ganz, Swiss-born pianist, it was published and premiered by Viñes in 1909. Ravel would later advise pianists to read the whole collection by Bertrand before playing the work. All three pieces loosely follow a disguised and concealed sonata form, which is somewhat more elaborate and explicit in the last piece. Ravel commented to Vlado Perlemuter: "I wanted to produce a caricature of romanticism", adding under his breath "Maybe I got carried away". Indeed, apart from being one of the most demanding works in the piano literature, the cycle made such innovative demands on technique and coordination that at a performance by Robert Casadesus in the twenties musicians were still so incredulous about its density and complexity as to query "How can one be sure all the right notes are being played in Scarbo ?"
Ondine continues the tradition of "water pieces" traced, among others, by Liszt and Debussy. Its final section parallels quite closely the developments in the text that describes a Lorelei-like water-nymph who seduces mortals. Le Gibet has no direct antecedent in Ravel's output, but its macabre and desolate atmosphere instantly makes one think of Poe. "It is the bell which tolls from the walls of a city beyond the horizon, and the corpse of a hanged man reddened by the setting sun." A piano roll recording of this piece, supposedly by Ravel, was actually made by Robert Casadesus under Ravel's supervision, and what stands out most in it is the insistence of the tolling bell.
Ravel's musical description of the malevolent gnome Scarbo was also spurred by the wish "to write something more difficult than Islamey " (oriental fantasy for piano by Balakirev). The composer indicated that its opening theme, derived from the opening motive, was illustrative of the words "quelle horreur". In his review of the cycle's premiere in 1909, Louis Laloy remarked upon the smile beneath Viñes' moustache in this movement - perhaps reflecting either the bemusement at the composer's success of transmitting the dwarf's malicious humour or the bemusement at the composer's success in writing a maliciously difficult piece.