Before we jump into this blog post, let’s listen to the focus piece first. Because it is so beautiful.
Maurice Ravel was a French composer who lived from 1875-1937. He is best known for composing in the style of French Impressionism (a musical movement focused on creating an atmosphere and describing moods and emotions in the listener), and in the last two decades of his life he was universally considered France’s greatest composer.
Ravel wrote Pavane pour une infante défunte, also known as Pavane for a Dead Princess in 1899, and the composer himself describes the piece as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former, times, have danced at the Spanish court” (a pavane is a slow, dignified, European Renaissance dance). While this peice isn’t venerating any specific historical princes, it is a tribute to royal Spanish customs and ideas, and Ravel said it depicted a royal court inspired by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (read more about him here). Velázquez’s painting The Maids of Honor is the featured image of this post; click here to read more about it.
In 1910, Ravel published an orchestrated version of his Pavane. Have a listen:
The floating melody over light chords portrays a sense of delicacy even over the constant 8th note dance pulse. Each section grows out of the previous sections through the shifting of texture and tone (for example, the orchestral version starts with a french horn solo that is then passed on to a woodwind duet and eventually the strings glide in). And the balance between the various tonal textures – the interplay between the brass and the woodwinds and the strings – is masterful (and also characteristic of Ravel’s orchestral writing). I’d also like to take a quick moment to discuss the harmonies. Modal harmonies pulled from Spanish folk music (read about Spanish harmonies here) combined with Renaissance parallel chords (read more about Renaissance harmony here under the section “Characteristics of Musical Style”) create the timeless yet ethereal sound reminiscent of the pavane’s history. My favorite section is from 3:31- 5:00. The solo flute is simply exquisite, and the sweeping harp and strings conjure up images of some sort of whimsical fairyland.
Do you like the piano or orchestral verion better? I’m honestly not sure which I prefer! I like the piano version because it seems more personal, and it’s up to the pianist to create the colors and the atmosphere of the piece. But the orchestral version assigns instruments to the music in such a way that Ravel’s exact tonal and textural effects occur. Either way, this beautiful, mystical piece transports us to another time and place.