The Kennedy Center

Pavane pour une infante défunte

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Richard Freed

Ravel originally composed his Pavane for piano in 1899 and dedicated it to the Princesse de Polignac; like the two pieces that precede it in these concerts, it was given its premiere on April 5, 1902, again by the composer's friend Ricardo Viñes, this time at the Salle Pleyel. The orchestral version was prepared in 1910 and was introduced at the Concerts Hasselmans on December 25, 1911, with Alfredo Casella conducting. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this piece on August 16, 1939, Guy Fraser Harrison conducting, and presented it last under Emil de Cou in a concert at the National Cathedral on July 21, 2005.
The score specifies 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, and strings. Duration, 6 minutes.

The piano version of the Pavane was Ravel's first popular success; it was played everywhere, gaining for him, as Roland-Manuel recounted, "the esteem of the salons and the admiration of young ladies who did not play the piano overly well." The orchestral version, produced a decade later, is generally regarded as an improvement on the original. Laurence Davies, in his study of Ravel's orchestral music, suggests that "Ravel was probably wise to orchestrate it, and perhaps would have been wiser still never to have written it for the piano."
The striking title Ravel affixed was undoubtedly a factor in its early and sustained popularity—but in a way the composer had not intended. "When I put together the words that make up this title," he declared, "my only thought was the pleasure of alliteration." Because that remark did not circulate widely, the title (given here in its original language, to preserve that alliterative character) has been widely misinterpreted. The English translation, "Pavane for a Dead Princess," is accurate enough in the strictly literal sense (Infante being a French rendering of Infanta, the term for a princess of the royal house of Spain), but Ravel, in conceding that he did have a programmatic image in mind, made it clear that the piece "is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane that might have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Veláasquez." In other words, the piece is not elegiac, but of the realm of fantasy and something close to nostalgia: a more apt rendering of the title in English might well be "Pavane for a Princess from a Faraway Time."

April 2007