Our music for this week is the first in a new series! We will be listening to the Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel.
In the composer’s own words, this piece is “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.” This immediately brings to mind the elegant royalty paintings of Velasquez. With Velasquez’s help, one can picture the exact scene that Ravel is describing.
The Pavane was a type of dance that was popular in the aristocratic circles of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was commonly used as a processional dance rather than a dance for a ball or a party. The royal family would process down the isle to the sounds of the stately Pavane, marching in time with the music. Composers of the time period therefore took great pride in composing majestic Pavanes that were worthy of the royalty of the time. Ravel, in a sense, is thumbing his nose at them when he writes, as his Pavane, a delicate little princess’ dance. At the same time, Ravel is displaying his great admiration for Spanish culture and his mild obsession with Spanish music (you might remember that one of his most famous works, Bolero, is also a homage to the Spanish).
It is said that Ravel intended the piece to be played very slowly – much more slowly than the recording that we will listen to – in an effort to imitate the stately and ponderous nature of the royal tradition he was imitating. Pianists over the years, however, have been very comfortable with ignoring this directive. Many of them have been known to say that, if it was played as Ravel wanted it to be played, it would go from being a “Pavane for a Dead Princess” to a “Dead Pavane for a Princess.” Controversies aside, however, the piece has become one of Ravel’s most beloved works. I find the opening melody to be an amazing combination of simplicity, melancholy, and gracefulness.