Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)                                   

JOSEPH‑MAURICE RAVEL

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure near Saint‑Jean‑de-Luz, Basses‑Pyrénées

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: 1899 as a piano solo, which Ravel dedicated to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac. He orchestrated this piece in 1910

WORLD PREMIERE: The orchestral version was first performed on February 27, 1911, with Henry Wood conducting at the Gentlemen’s Concerts in Manchester, England

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1943. Pierre Monteux led. MOST RECENT—November 2009. Semyon Bychkov conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, and muted strings.

DURATION: About 6 mins

THE BACKSTORY In 1899, Ravel was anything but an established composer. He had been born twenty-four years earlier in a town practically on the French border with Spain, to a Basque mother and a father of Swiss stock. Three months after his birth the family moved to Paris, where the composer grew up, warmly encouraged to develop his musical propensities and given no structured education apart from music lessons. In November 1889 he gained admission to the Paris Conservatory, thanks to his proficient piano audition. At that time the Paris Conservatory was suffering from a reputation for stodginess, and Ravel’s questing mind did not fit well into the mix. For three years running he failed to win a prize in harmony, and according to the Conservatory’s regulations this automatically prevented him from continuing in the composition curriculum. In July 1895 he left the Conservatory.

Still, his talent was remarkable, and in January 1898 Ravel managed to get himself readmitted to the Conservatory, now welcomed into the composition class of Gabriel Fauré. Ravel started out better this time, producing compositions that began to provoke comment (if often disapproving) from music critics. In the end, however, he was simply not cut out to succeed as an academic. In 1900 he was treated to a replay of his earlier debacle, finding himself dismissed from the Conservatory’s composition program for having failed to score a prize in either composition or fugue. He continued as an auditor in Fauré’s studio, but from 1900 to 1905 his five annual attempts to win the Prix de Rome, a seal of approval sought by aspiring composers, came to nothing. It turned out the juries had been rigged, and when the press learned what was going on the scandal (dubbed L’affaire Ravel) was so great that it brought about a wholesale change in the Conservatory’s administration and, in 1905, the installation of Fauré as the school’s new, reform-minded director.

Ravel was a regular at the salon of Madame René de Saint-Marceaux, a singer who often entertained composers and artists, and in time he became a presence at the Princesse de Polignac’s (née Winnaretta Singer, a notable arts patron and an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune). The Princesse’s Parisian mansion in the Avenue Henri Martin contained a 1500-square-foot room, mirrored à la Versailles, in which 250 spectators could be seated comfortably. Among the musical works commissioned by, or at least dedicated to, the Princesse de Polignac were Fauré’s Cinq mélodies (Opus 58), Stravinsky’s Renard, Satie’s Socrate, Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée, Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Weill’s Symphony No. 2, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Concerto for Two Pianos, Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show), and Ravel’s beloved Pavane pour une infante défunte. He must have played his Pavane at the Princesse de Polignac’s salon, although we lack any documentation of that event. The public premiere took place at a relatively high-profile concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, played by Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, Ravel’s closest friend since the beginning of his Conservatory days.

THE MUSIC Pavane proved immensely popular leading to Ravel to create an orchestral version in 1910. Ironically, Ravel became widely known by a piece that is atypical of his style. Many composers grow to resent certain of their creations that become so popular as to overshadow others of their efforts that they consider more deserving, and so it was with Ravel and his Pavane.

But music-lovers have resolutely ignored the composer’s protestation—as did he, one might add, since he deigned to make a Duo-Art piano-roll recording of it himself in 1922. Pavane pour une infante défunte remains one of those pieces that everybody recognizes instantly. It encapsulates an emotional coolness, a restrained melancholy, and a mysterious timelessness that lends it a unique personality.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(April 2019)