Tender Melancholy and Yes to Life in Maurice Ravel's - "Pavane pour une infante défunte" (Pavane for a dead princess)

2 min read

From time to time I let one of my students practice methods with me to allow them to make the experience that the methods work - even on their own teacher. Few things are more empowering than trusting in someone's abilities and possibilities.

During one of the sessions I was discussing pieces of music which could be used in a therapeutical setting and the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili came up - then of course the famous Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel.

I see the beauty of this widely acclaimed masterpiece in the expression of a tender melancholy in the first motif which transitions to a sensation strength, decisiveness, maybe to rise from the ashes or the motif of being reborn. These are my associations, of course and everybody is free to find their own.

Reflecting on this the question came up, what the title actually meant. Lacking sufficient French my student and me had to look it up. We translated it to "Pavane for a dead child" (which is not correct, by the way) - but we went with it. Then, when listening to the piece I pondered upon a deep sadness which I associated with the image of a "dead child" - the assumed meaning of the title triggered that. I allowed the sadness and under bilateral stimulation by my student I could quickly get through it - as you would expect it to happen. Before the music ended came the following realization (or should I rather say revelation?):

This is not a piece for a dead child, this is a piece for a child that was alive. There is so much Yes to life in this piece. I am sorry, Mr. Ravel, you got that wrong.

This again illustrates how bilateral stimulation not only leads to processing of negative emotions - at the same time it can give rise to deep revelations that have meaning and an inherent beauty.

What I did not know at that time was, that the composer said:

Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c'est tout.

I found that out only when doing a little background research about for this article. It seems, I was right about that.

I am fascinated how certain pieces of music contain an emotional narrative that resembles that of processes that naturally happen in people during stabilization. This is only logical for a piece by a composer who can say that about his own childhood:

Throughout my childhood I was sensitive to music. My father, much better educated in this art than most amateurs are, knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age. - Maurice Ravel

Without further ado, I would like to invite you to take a moment to listen to this beautiful piece played by Khatia Buniatishvili whose interpretations I adore: