This weekend, my mother (80 years young) and I will be performing a duo piano recital. One of the pieces on the program is Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel. Ravel originally wrote the work, in 1899, for solo piano, and it was his first great success as a composer. He published a version for orchestra in 1910.
The pavane was a stately dance of the 16th-century European aristocracy, often used as an opportunity to display elegant dress and to open ceremonial balls. It’s presumed to have traveled from Italy to France and England by way of Spain; in southern Spain it was performed in churches on solemn occasions. (The name may come from the Spanish pavo or Italian pavone, for peacock, whose slow, prideful walk mimics the dance).
The English translation of the title is rather unfortunate: Pavane for a Dead Princess. Ravel wrote, “Do not attach any importance to the title. I chose it only for its euphonious qualities. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velázquez” (seen dressed in white in the painting below).
There’s a dreaminess to this music that I love; indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone dancing to it….it’s more of a reverie. The stretch from 0:59 to 2:20 is especially beautiful, as are a number of the interesting chord progressions throughout. (The performance here–an arrangement for two pianos, four hands–is by the French duo, sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque).
See what it conjures for you.
Trivia tidbit: If you’re familiar with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, you may not know that it was originally written for solo piano. The orchestration that is so widely played, recorded and loved is by….Maurice Ravel.