Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ravel: Pavane pour une Infante Défunte

When a young Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) composed Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (1899) for solo piano, he was a student at the Paris Conservatory, from which he would eventually be expelled twice for not winning any composition contests.

The pavane is a slow, processional Renaissance dance, consisting of a series of hesitating steps like those of a modern-day wedding procession. It was just stately enough to have an occasional link with somber ceremonies (such as royal funerals), but that was not Ravel’s creative impetus.

He had written the piece for his Patron, the Princesse de Poignac, and described it as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess (infanta) might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish Court.” As for the title, he confessed “I simply liked the sound of those words.”

Such explanations, and the comparisons of his style to that of Claude Débussy, later earned Ravel the label of “impressionist,” though he (and Débussy both) rejected that term.

Born just inside the French border with Spain, Ravel adored his Basque mother, and felt a nostalgic love for Spanish culture throughout his life. Rapsodie Espagnole (“Spanish Rhapsody”) (1908) was his first major work composed for orchestra, and L’Heure Espagnole (“Spanish Time”) (1911) was the more successful of his two comic operas. Ravel orchestrated many of his own piano works, and the Pavane was scored for orchestra during this same period.

Its clear melody, surrounded by soft harmonies shifting from archaic modes to modern jazz-like gestures reveal the influence of Chabrier and Fauré (Ravel’s teacher), and that of a contemporary, Erik Satie. Though he was routinely criticized for an overly-cerebral style, Ravel was his own worst critic, and insisted this piece was unoriginal, and “poor in form.”

By the time of its 1911 orchestral debut in England however, the Pavane was praised for its “remote beauty” and is now well received in the repertoire. Only his Boléro (1928), named after the slow Spanish dance, is better known to audiences.

Despite the acknowledged “impersonal” quality of his music, Ravel’s imaginative instrumental colorings and love of dance extend, well into the twentieth century, a sound that to us seems quintessentially French.

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