Born as a piano piece, the Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) was written in 1899 by a young Ravel (Ravel was born in 1875), still a student at the conservatory in Paris at the time.
Ravel described the piece as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court“. The princess is a figment of his imagination and indeed, the only real princess involved was the Princess Edmond de Polignac (born Winnaretta Singer), a noted patroness of the arts, to whom Ravel dedicated the piece.
The link to the Spanish court is clearly specified in the title, with the word “infante“, a title given to the children of the kings of Spain and Portugal who were not the elders. The piece falls within the lines of that renewed passion for Spanish music shared with some of the composer’s contemporaries. Which was helped of course by some very well known Spanish composers like Albéniz and de Falla.
But the link is not just a geographical one, it’s also a temporal one: the pavane was a dance typical of the Renaissance and became extremely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. The choice was not made by chance: Ravel’s teacher, the great composer Gabriel Fauré, had written a famous pavane for orchestra back in 1887.
Ravel orchestrated his pavane much later, in 1910 and it is to this day one of his most popular pieces. It is a relatively simple piece, especially when compared to other works by Ravel who endure the same popularity, like the Suite from Daphnis et Chloe or his Piano concerto in G.
Ravel plays Ravel: 1922 piano roll of the Pavane pour une infante défunte
In fact, Ravel in later years tried to distance himself from it. He felt that it stole too much from Chabrier, and complained that its construction showed “quite poor form,” and was “inconclusive and conventional.“
By the way, Ravel himself made a piano roll recording of it in 1922 and supervised the recording of the orchestra version of 1932.
Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte: analysis
The Pavane is a very soft piece: and I don’t mean just in terms of dynamics. It’s soft in asperities too (and here’s the heritage and another influence of Fauré): wherever there are dissonances they are never sharp but always round on the angles.
The structure is also very linear: A B A C A. The real sophistication comes with the orchestration of which Ravel was an absolute master.
Take a look at the beginning: the strings, always muted, accompany a solo horn, like little drops of rain on this melancholic phrase. The horn, which usually has a very warm sound, here is almost cold when compared to the warmth of the flute and strings answer at the end of the phrase.
And the harp, so beloved by Ravel and Debussy, opens the phrase for a moment.
Until horns, clarinets and bassoons put a darker shade on it and lend it over to the oboe which introduces the B section.
By the way, interestingly, while all the other woodwinds and the horns are in the usual pair, Ravel calls for only one oboe.
Notice all the tempo indications Ravel puts in the score: he starts with Lent (Lento, slow) and then adds cedez (give in), au movement (A tempo), en elargissant (allargando), then back to 1er Mouvement (Tempo primo).
This alone will give you the idea of how flexible you need to be in order for the piece to come to life: you need to breathe it and let all the nuances come through naturally.
The harp, again, underlines the atmosphere with its low note pedal. This second theme is repeated by the strings, with a pizzicato of the double basses
Second “A” section
Everything is still, there are no contrasts between sections or instruments. And we’re taken back to the A section again, with variations: the theme is now played by flutes and clarinets in octaves
and the oboe joins in, coloring the phrase.
The harp again, and then the genius of Ravel places the oboe an octave above the flute
Normally the flute is placed higher than the oboe due to its nature. But listen here how it helps in creating a distant and somewhat somber moment
and then the warmth of the strings encouraged in their gesture by the clarinets and the oboe. The music seems to grow for a second, creating a certain expectation to get bigger. But instead, it folds on itself, and its delicacy returns like a caress. In this entire section the harp is always present in the background, painting dreams with its arpeggios and glissandos.
Third “A” section
Until in the last repeat of the A section, the harp becomes a key player of the accompaniment on top of which the melody flows played by the violins doubled by the flutes and then by the oboe.
The dynamic here is still pianissimo. But Ravel takes care of it with the orchestration: with the violins in octaves, it already sounds louder and more open. It’s very easy to fall into the temptation to make unwritten crescendi and diminuendi. But that would take away from the dreaminess of the line making it over-romantic.
And listen to how a single note gets colored by different instruments: first the violins, then harp, then the rest of the orchestra.
The phrase closes on the last chord in harmonics, ending this extraordinary moment of a Princess life with ethereal grace.
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