Pavane for a what….?

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.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

peacockThe 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).

B_La_Pavane
La Pavane, by Gustave Jean Jacquet

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).

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez
Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez

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.

4 comments

  • Ravel certainly gained some recognition from a different fan base when his ‘Bolero’ played over the Bo Derek/Dudley Moore pseudo-sex scene in the movie “Ten.” Good luck with your recital!!

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  • You’re certainly ticking my boxes with this post! In fact I have a half-written post on this very piece, but I set it aside when I discovered that the youtube clip that I wanted to illustrate it with had been taken down. I don’t think I’ve come across the two piano version before. It works very well, and having the marvellous Labèque play it is a bonus.

    It is such an exquisite piece. Have a wonderful recital.

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    • Great minds have similar tastes! (Insert smiling emoticon here).

      It really is gorgeous, isn’t it? Some of the harmonies are other-worldly. Our program is focusing on various dances: a Grieg Norwegian dance, a Brahms Hungarian dance, a Brahms waltz, a Dvorak Slavonic dance, the Ravel pavane, among a few others. We’re also doing a waltz (arranged for duet) from a ballet by a Russian composer I’d never heard of, Valery Gavrilin. This is another lovely piece; there are many renditions of it on You Tube.

      I moved “What’s Up Doc” to the top of my DVD rental queue at Netflix!

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  • That sounds like a really choice recital. You and your mother are obviously very accomplished. I’ve also never heard of Gavrilin. Something else for me to explore.

    It’s such a long time since I’ve seen “What’s Up Doc”. I think one of the other things that fascinated me about it was that the Ryan O’Neill character had perfect pitch (didn’t he have some sort of peculiar geological / acoustic specialisation?) and at one point – if memory serves – Barbra rang a hotel reception bell and Ryan said, instinctively, something like “C# above middle C” (or whatever it was). As a kid, this struck me as just about the coolest thing imaginable. In some ways it still does. I’m pretty certain that the incident I describe is from “What’s Up Doc”. Possibly it’s another film. Or maybe I dreamt it. Either way, “What’s Up Doc” certainly has one of the most delicious car chases ever committed to celluloid.

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