Pavane pour une infante défunte

Maurice Ravel

Pavane pour une infante défunte

M. 19 • “Pavane for a Dead Princess”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), composed in 1899, was the second of the composer's piano works to see publication. Despite Ravel's half-hearted efforts to later disown the piece -- he felt it to be too clearly oriented around the musical language of Chabrier, an early hero of his -- it is not at all difficult to understand why the Pavane instantly and irrevocably caught the attention of European concert-goers and why, along with Boléro (1928), it remains the composer's best-known music. It is a work of great but subtle charm, infused with the lightness of touch that emerged as one of Ravel's compositional hallmarks.

Ravel complained of the Pavane's "quite poor form." Indeed, the work is perhaps excessively sectional; it basically unfolds in an ABACA scheme, with both the B and C sections containing two parallel but differing statements of the same theme. The key of G major seems an unlikely and unusually bright one for such a sober subject, yet it is just this harmonic context that makes the gently plaintive B and far more exuberant C sections so effective. Here is no adult weeping for a dead child, but in essence a gentle, nostalgic celebration of the sweet innocence of childhood on the tragic occasion of its loss. (The origin of the work's title is unclear; it has been suggested that Ravel simply liked the way it sounded.) The Pavane rides along upon a steady eighth note pulse, in keeping with the pavane's origins as a stately Renaissance dance, and is filled with stylized rhythmic gestures. The final iteration of the opening melody is much fuller than the previous two, and here Ravel allows himself to make a dramatic move from pianissimo to fortissimo over the course of the last few bars.