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Conducting Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

Last updated May 13, 2021 | 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. 

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Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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19 Comments
  1. Ala alfa

    You descibe it like doing the painting, like each instrument creates different color, shade and it creates mood. 🙂 ….Structure is either the dynamics or callmness? ….like the dynamics or calmness in paintings.:) I only guess…My mom used to draw, now she is experimenting by doing paintings, but static, no dynamics.Music can not be static 🙂 She doesnt seem to be satisfied in the process. Drawing seems easier..I dont know how to describe music, but only to say classic music is rarely boring, with all the possibilities. 🙂 Only our mind may be bored. 🙂 But to me ding painting is easier than classic music. You may paint some abstract “nonsese” with one color or two colors only, in short period of time, put it in gallery, as we saw on tv, and somebody will say that its artwork. 🙂 or you paint something extremelly beautiful, and somebody says its beautiful too…but I doubt that in classical music its possible. You need talent.

  2. Ala alfa

    It is not common for masters to be often photographed in their environment. It gives space for imagination. 🙂

      • Ala alfa

        Yes. I saw the pictures and the gallery of previous composers.. They have always calm or neutral face, like they are thinking of something.Maybe they didnt want to move too much to be blurry in picture.

        • Gianmaria Griglio

          It also was not custom to smile in pictures (as in paintings). That is something that came much more recently

          • Ala alfa

            Its interesting. Actually you are right. It seems Tchaikovskyin the picture in the garden was almost smilling.

  3. Ala alfa

    “But that would take away from the dreaminess of the line making it over-romantic”…What is over-romantic? too melancholic? or sentimental maybe.

    • Gianmaria Griglio

      In this case, if the dynamics are pushed over what’s written they would tear the airiness of the line. Big contrasts in dynamics with warm and luscious crescendo and diminuendo is something that’s typical of the romantic and late-romantic period, which does overlap with the impressionism (in music) of which Ravel is part. These are the same years in which Mahler is writing his symphonies, and Puccini is jumping from Manon Lescaut to Tosca via Boheme. But this piece by Ravel does not belong into that category: it calls for subtle changes and a very gentle approach

      • Ala alfa

        Thanks. You always have perfect explanations. Like poetry 🙂

      • Ala alfa

        Conductors talk of Mahler a lot..there are lot of titles of concerts….and Shostakovich and Stravinsky. But some complain that many american composers of 20´century are forgoten or unknown for public or that there are the ones who did symphonies and the ones who didnt. Maybe ts also fact that is a lot of material to study.

        • Gianmaria Griglio

          Well, those 3 you mentioned are pivotal in the history of classical music. While that justifies the amount of interest in them, it is true that it overshadows other composers. But that can be true for a single composer as well: Dukas is almost exclusively known for his Sorcerer’s apprentice, while his other works (like his symphony) have been totally dismissed (with the seldom exception of his opera Ariane et Barbebleu)

          • Ala alfa

            Its good that they are pivotal and often presented because of what they created and the symphonies..and I said two comments in one. They discuss or they asked G. Schwarz now during quaratine also why some american composers are not played, or just few of them and also discussing the money to make it happen, and people´s willingness to go to concerts that ts important to have audience who use to come etc. And some lady asked what to do when musicians have nothing to do now…he said listen music or read a book as he does. It seems people try to find some inspiration to stay positive.

          • Gianmaria Griglio

            Indeed they do. Even if it everything but easy for a lot of us who are musicians and performers in general.

          • Ala alfa

            Yes its little emotional too, too many problems in the world. But when we focus on something else, we feel better.

          • Ala alfa

            In the video Ravel is playing by himself. Its relaxing.

          • Ala alfa

            Mahler was mostly conductor too, did it for living. Conductors get inspiration from him.

          • Gianmaria Griglio

            he was one of the best conductors in the world. Pity there are no recordings…

          • Ala alfa

            He is role model for conductors. Its interesting. It seems the radio wasnt fully invented maybe.

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