Pavane for a Dead Princess (in French: Pavane pour une Infante Defunte) is a luxurious ceremonial dance for piano by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel.
Ravel's goal was to evoke a Spanish princess from the Renaissance - and he does it superbly.
The Pavane's haunting subtlety and expressive melodies have made it hugely popular.
Ravel scribbled the piece for a commission in 1899, when he was 24. Three years later his good friend, the Spanish pianist Ricardo Vines, premiered it. It was a smash hit in Paris, and made Ravel a famous composer.
Ravel dedicated the little piece to the Princesse de Polignac, who held regular avant-garde musical events in her stately Paris mansion.
The title of the piece doesn't refer to any specific person or event in history.
Ravel, so he claimed, just really liked the alliteration the sounds of the words infante (princess) and defunte (dead) made.
A pavane is a courtly dance from the Renaissance period.
Ravel explained that the Pavane for a Dead Princess wasn't mourning a princess that had actually died, but a wistful daydream of something a sixteenth-century Spanish princess might have danced to. What a lovely idea!
The dance has an elegant and ceremonial rhythm, with a hint of Spanish harmonies. But the entire piece is saturated with an impressionist color.
Ravel's style is in full bloom here. I think it's incredible that he had already developed his uniquely meticulous yet sensuous sound at such a young age.
Ravel also created a version for orchestra a decade after the piano version, capturing the nostalgia of the piece brilliantly with a warm orchestral pallete.
Most composers tend to dislike their early successes later in life, and Ravel was no different! Years after the Pavane was published, he complained that it was conventional and unimaginative. Still, it's one of his most famous pieces, a perfect example of his expressive style.
He also got tired of eager performers playing it too slowly, in order to wring all the emotion out of it they could. He once exclaimed that it was a "Pavane for a Dead Princess, not a Dead Pavane for a Princess"!
My favorite interpretation of the piano version is played by Vlado Perlemuter. His touch is very subtle, and he doesn't overpower the piece like many pianists do. His tempo is also faster than most, which is excellent since it makes the piece actually sound like a dance instead of a funeral march...
For the orchestral performance, you can't go wrong with Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Ethereal, warmly, luxurious, and subtle, this is Ravel interpretation at its glorious peak. The recording also features a fantastically dynamic performance of Ravel's masterwork Daphnis et Chloe.
Here's a great video of an orchestral performance of the piece, by the Saito Kinen Orchestra:
You may also like Ravel's fiendish Gaspard de la Nuit.
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