30 Oct 2012

Ravel – Pavane for a Dead Princess

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, harp, strings

Duration: 6 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) – After failing to win the requisite prizes at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel was dismissed from his classes in 1895. He returned in 1897 and though he made good progress and had important guidance from Fauré, he again failed to achieve prized status and was dismissed a second time in 1900. Scholastic shortcomings aside, Ravel did receive some professional acknowledgement during those years with his first publications.  

THE MUSIC – Like some other important 19th and 20th century orchestral scores (Pictures at an Exhibition comes quickly to mind), Pavane for a Dead Princess began life as piano music. Completed in 1899 while he was studying with Fauré, the Pavane was one of the first of Ravel’s compositions to be published. Ravel was very clear about the shocking sadness of the title (especially in its English translation) and its lack of a specific historical impetus. “Do not attach any importance to the title,” he wrote, “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.” The pavane was a stately court dance of 16th century Spain and Italy. The Spanish history of the form was of special importance to Ravel who, born of a Basque mother, always held an affinity for his Iberian heritage. As such, the Pavane was intended as tribute to that culture and its unique disposition, not more. Ravel was reluctant to embrace the piece later in life and thought it too derivative of his early influences as a composer. Despite the “poor” formal construction he once attributed to it, the Pavane did warrant his attention again in 1910 and the gorgeously subtle orchestration he created placed the work forever among his most beloved.     

THE WORLD – The short-lived First Philippine Republic was formed in 1899. Also that year, Kate Chopin published The Awakening, Russia abrogated Finland’s autonomy with the February Manifesto and Martha M. Place became the first woman to be executed by electric chair.

THE CONNECTION – Though popular, Pavane has actually not appeared on a Masterworks program since 1988. Yoav Talmi conducted.