Pavane pour une Infante défunte

Caroline Potter

Ravel was a master orchestrator, and many of his orchestral works, including Pavane pour une Infante défunte (Pavane for a Deceased Infanta), started life as piano pieces. The original piano version of Pavane pour une Infante défunte was written when Ravel was a student at the Paris Conservatoire and is dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer, of the sewing machine dynasty), whose Paris salon Ravel attended. It was published in 1899 by Demets with a beautiful art nouveau cover and orchestrated in August 1909. 

The title is multiply evocative, though Ravel claimed he chose it purely because he liked the sound. The pavane is a Renaissance dance that, according to the 16th-century French dance historian Thoinot Arbeau, was generally danced by couples in a procession. Ravel’s mention of an infanta locates the dance in the Spanish court, making this one of his many works that evoke an imaginary Spain. The composer’s beloved mother was brought up in Madrid and her first son Maurice was born in Ciboure, a village in the Basque country about six miles from the Spanish border, in a house where his aunt was the concierge. 

Pavane pour une Infante défunte is essentially a theme with variations and a contrasting central section. The piece is reminiscent of Chabrier, an important influence on Ravel: in places it sounds like a slower version of Chabrier’s Idylle. In fact, in a review he wrote in 1912 Ravel was critical of Pavane precisely because of its ‘formal poverty’ and too obvious debt to Chabrier, though in both piano and orchestral versions, it was immediately successful and remains one of his most popular works. The melodic line is usually given to the horn, and the score calls for two ‘Cors simples en sol’, in other words not the modern valved horn in F. The oscillating accompaniment is tailor made for the harp and evokes the lute or the Spanish ancestor of the guitar, the vihuela. 

The orchestration was premièred in the distinctly un-Spanish location of Manchester on 27 February 1911 at a Gentleman’s Concert conducted by Sir Henry Wood who introduced the work to London at two Promenade concerts later that same year. Alfredo Casella conducted the French première on Christmas Day 1911. The piece was played at Marcel Proust’s funeral in 1922, but Ravel did not approve of funereal-paced performances. Indeed, Charles Oulmont, who played the piano version to Ravel, reported in 1938 that the composer had reprimanded him for playing it too slowly: ‘Watch out, young man, it’s not a dead pavane for an infanta.’

Further Reading