Ravel’s Pavane: It’s Not What You Think

Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte

“I have written a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”  Ravel did not mean for this statement about his Pavane for a Dead Princess to be humorous.   He made it because he was frustrated at the over-interpretation of his new composition.  He did not intend for it to be a mourning piece for a funeral, but rather a dignified pavane, which means dance, that could have been performed by a princess in the courts of Spain.  He insisted that it be played in strict time, as opposed to rubato, without drama and sentimentality.  “Do not attach more importance to this title than it has,”  Ravel stated.  This certainly sheds new light on the meaning of this piece.  It also makes one wonder why he chose the word “dead” as a descriptive for the princess if he was actually trying to portray something entirely different.

Ravel wrote his composition in 1899, but the pavane itself was established during the sixteenth century Renaissance period as a slow, dignified introductory dance to the galliard; the galliard was a spirited, athletic dance containing leaps, jumps and hops and was written in triple meter.

Ravel dedicated his pavane to the Princess Edmond de Polignac, a painter and wealthy member of the French aristocracy.  It was premiered by Ricardo Vines on April 5, 1902 and was the first of Ravel’s works to achieve real popularity.  It remains as popular today as it was in 1902!  Because of its title, however, some feel that it should be reserved for funerals and somber occasions.  But understanding Ravel’s intention behind his composing of the piece should give one the feeling that he or she has permission to perform it for all types of occasions where elegant music is needed.  And if the title is shortened to simply “Pavane” by Ravel, no one will ever associate it with anything somber.

On June 30, 1922 in London, Ravel recorded a performance of this piece on a Duo-Art “piano roll.”  Piano rolls captured performances with great accuracy and preserved the personal characteristics of the pianist remarkably.  The roll was then played back on a piano that could play rolls.  To hear this actual piano roll recording made by Ravel himself, click on the link.  The photo you will see with the video is also of Ravel at the piano playing his Pavane for a Dead Princess.  The sheet music to this piece can be found in At The Piano With Ravel, published by Alfred.


Birmingham, AL Music Store | At The Piano With Ravel | Ellis Piano