Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Maurice Ravel
Pavane for a Dead Princess

Maurice Ravel was only 24 when his piano solo Pavane pour une Infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) became the rage of the drawing rooms and salons of Paris in 1899, but the work already held the unmistakable stamp of his style. A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, young Ravel had worked with Gabriel Fauré and was an admirer of Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie. Yet though he was an ardent scholar of a wide range of musical forms, his own musical language was immediately apparent in this short piece: in the lightness of touch, in the change of mood and timbre using harmonic rather than dynamic shifts, and in the deftness of melody.

The Impressionist movement was in full flower and the Pavane may have gained some interest due to the strong image that its title conjured. Who was this dead princess? Ravel always assured listeners that the title was nothing more than a fancy of his, that he imagined the tune to be "a slow Spanish dance to which a little princess may once have danced." Indeed, the only real princess involved was the Princess Edmond de Polignac, a noted patroness of the arts, to whom Ravel dedicated the piece.

The work was popular enough that Ravel orchestrated it in 1910 (the version heard in today’s concert), though in later years he tried to distance himself from it. He felt that it stole too much from Chabrier, and complained that its highly sectional ABACA construction showed "quite poor form," and was "inconclusive and conventional." And he may simply have been tired of amateur pianists trying their hand at it. He told one such performer, "Next time, I hope you’ll remember that I wrote a Pavane for a deceased princess … not a deceased Pavane for a princess."

Yet there is something ineffable and moving in this deceptively simple work that cannot be dismissed. It unfolds on a stately eighth-note pulse, following the form of the Renaissance pavane, a courtly dance. Each successive iteration of the main theme is contrasted by growing orchestral textures, from plaintive woodwinds in the B section to sweeping strings and harp in the C section. Ravel builds on each reiteration as well, stating the main theme first with horns, then with a flute and oboe duet, and finally growing from pianissimo to fortissimo in the strings in the course of the last few bars. The overall effect is never demanding or abrupt, yet insistent in its own subtle way.

September 23, 2001