Ravel – Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)

by Max Derrickson

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

Pavane for a Dead Princess

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Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) was commissioned of the 24 year old Ravel in 1899 as a somewhat whimsical salon piece for piano and premiered in 1902 by Ricardo Vines to much acclaim.  The composer was a bit bewildered by the work’s popularity, but nonetheless orchestrated it in 1910 to even greater success.
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With the Pavane, by contrast, we see his love of older musical forms from the Renaissance, in this case a moderately paced court dance.  He chose the title because he was fond of the sonority of the French words (“infante defunte”) and the piece was not meant to be a funeral lament for a child.  Rather, Ravel hoped to evoke the scene of a young Spanish princess delighting in this stately dance in quiet reverie, as would have been painted by Velazquez in the Spanish court.

What the Pavane gives us is Ravel’s gift for exquisite melody and his mastery of orchestration.  Its perfectly balanced sections between strings, woodwinds and golden glowing brass create a quiescent, inner-splendor; dance-like but meditative.  Ravel’s cleverness with pizzicato propels the dance along with graceful but slightly shuffling feet; the harp glissandos swoop with the young dancer’s lifting arms.
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