Pavane pour une infante défunte

This piano piece was written in early 1899, and was given its first public performance by Ricardo Viñes on 5 April 1902. It was dedicated to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (the former Winnaretta Singer who inherited the large fortune that her father had made from sewing machines), whose salon Ravel attended while a student, and later. The Pavane was orchestrated by Ravel in 1910 (and first performed at a Promenade concert in London conducted by Henry Wood in summer 1911; see Orenstein [1989] p.597).

In choosing his title, Ravel was more concerned with the sound of the words than with any historical Spanish princess: "Pour moi, je n'ai songé, en assemblant les mots qui composent ce titre qu'au plaisir de faire un allitération. Ne pas attacher à ce titre plus d'importance qu'il n'en a. Éviter de dramatiser. Ce n'est pas la déploration funèbre d'une infante qui vient de mourir mais bien l'évocation d'une pavane qu'aurait pu danser telle petite princesse, jadis, à la cour d'Espagne." (Quoted in Marnat [1986], p.96-97).

The work was immensely popular with the public, and much disparaged by other musicians and critics. Ravel himself said later: "Mais, hélas! j'en perçois fort bien les défauts: l'influence de Chabrier, trop flagrante, et la forme assez pauvre. L'interpretation remarquable de cette œuvre incomplète et sans audace a contribué beaucoup, je pense, à son succès." (Revue musicale de la S.I.M., mars 1912. p.50, reprinted in Orenstein [1989] p.295).

Alfred Cortot: "La popularité de cette œuvre m'a toujours paru en contradiction avec les raisons d'une admiration intelligente pour le génie de Ravel." (La musique française de piano, [1948], quoted in Marnat [1986], p.97).

Vladimir Jankélévitch: "La Pavane ... n'est guère défendable." (Jankélévitch, [1995] p.20).

Ravel however continued to play the work, and made a piano roll recording of it in 1922. It is interesting to hear his robust and angular performance, very different from the nostalgic and elegiac interpretations which are more familiar on modern recordings. The composer was clear that the tempo should not languish; commenting on a performance by Charles Oulmont, he said: "Attention mon petit, ce n'est pas une pavane défunte pour une infante". (Reported in Marnat [1986], p.97. Cf. Oulmont in La revue musicale [1938], p.209).

"Critics who dismiss the work as unworthy of the composer underestimate the quality of that melody which floats above its lute-like accompaniment and its ambiguous harmonies with an enchanting combination of seriousness and serenity." ( Larner [1996], p.90)

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