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.
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