Conducting Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

Last updated Sep 1, 2020 | Published on Aug 17, 2020

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.
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Table of contents

Introduction

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

“A” section

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.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 1

And the harp, so beloved by Ravel and Debussy, opens the phrase for a moment.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 2

Until horns, clarinets and bassoons put a darker shade on it and lend it over to the oboe which introduces the B section. 

“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.

Technical tip

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.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 3

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

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 4

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

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 5
“C” section

We then get into the C section, with a very dreamy and airy flute

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 6

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.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 7

Technical tip

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.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 8
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 9
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 10

The phrase closes on the last chord in harmonics, ending this extraordinary moment of a Princess life with ethereal grace.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte, excerpt 11

 

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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