2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, strings
Composed 1899 (piano version). Orchestrated 1910. First performance: February 27, 1911, Manchester, England. Sir Henry Wood, conductor.
note by Katherine Baber
Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was originally written for piano (1899) before he transformed it with his unparalleled skills as an orchestrator (1910). The result is a both subtle and wondrous version of the court dance popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The pavane is a stately procession—four steps forward and three steps back—performed to music that repeats a few melodic strains, each of which falls gently into evenly balanced phrases. The scenario named in the evocative title—the death of an Infanta, or princess—fantasizes on the Spanish courtly custom of performing solemn songs and dances at a time of royal mourning. Ravel chooses to return to the opening melody as a refrain, always stated twice as in the traditional pavane. Somewhere between a hymn and a folk song, the first statements in the French horn give the melody a noble but gentle character, perfect for a princess (and dedicated to his patron, the Princess de Polignac). The final refrain in the violins sings over a gently rocking accompaniment from the harp, turning the tune into a lullaby before it dissolves, like a memory, into a whisper of harmonics and a single note in the flutes.