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Maurice Ravel's
           Pavane pour une infante défunte
           Pavane for a dead princess

For solo piano or orchestra; orchestral version scored for strings (violin I and II, viola, cello and double bass), two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, two horns, and harp.

If your first thought at reading the title wasn’t "pavane for a dead baby...?", well done! you're smarter than me The name in English traditionally translates as Pavane for a Dead Princess, "infanta" being the title bestowed upon royal daughters and granddaughters in Spain and Portugal (though derived from the same root as "child" and "infant" in Romance languages).

The translation of "défunte" as "dead" is a bit misleading; a more accurate but less catchy title might be "Pavane for a princess from long ago" or "of antiquity". When the piece became a top-40 of the parlors and salons of Impressionist France in 1899, surely some of its intrigue arose from the somber title and the story it implies - but compositeur extraordinaire Joseph-Maurice Ravel would repeatedly insist that he simply liked how the words fit together: the piece was not “about” any particular ex-infanta. He described the piece as "a slow Spanish dance to which a little princess may once have danced," and certainly not intended as elegiac. An admiration of Spanish aesthetic and culture was actually common at the time - shared by many of Ravel's contemporaries (such as Debussy) and evident in a number of Ravel's other works.

Whatever the intent of the title, the music seems to mean something a bit more than pastiche to a lot of people. Perhaps it'd be worth your time to give it a listen?*

Ravel was still in school studying under Gabriel Fauré when he composed the piece (in fact, as an assignment) - but his style is already unmistakable here: lush but lucid harmonically, poignant and crystalline melodically, with a complex, dancelike touch and sensitivity to timbre. The work became so popular he produced an orchestral arrangement in 1910. Later in his life, though, Ravel would distance himself from the work, feeling it overly conventional - "lacking daring".

Or he may just have been sick of hearing us amateurs attempt to play it. No discussion of the Pavane is complete without mention of Ravel's comment to one pianist after an evidently slaggy performance: "Remember I wrote a Pavane for a dead princess - not a Dead pavane for a princess." Cheeky devil.

public domain sheet music!

* Sviatoslav Richter liked to give concerts free of charge, for people who couldn’t afford tickets and, as a result, had never experienced live classical music. People lined up over several blocks and several hours in the dead of Russian winter for this particular performance in 1954.
Also comes in orchestral flavor!

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