Maurice Ravel (07.03.1875 – 28.12.1937) was a French composer, pianist and conductor. During the second and third decades of the twentieth century he was considered to be the greatest living composer in France. Although he was a very stylish dresser, Ravel was a small, slender man, without a particularly imposing presence. Much of his music, like the man himself, is written on a small scale.
The original (piano) version of the Pavane pour une infante défunte was Ravel’s first popular success, premiered in 1902, it was played frequently thereafter and Ravel came to be held in high esteem within the salons of Paris. Although Ravel himself was not a great pianist, pianists admire the way his writing “fits the hand”. Neither was he a particularly good conductor, yet there are few composers who are better at orchestration. He orchestrated many of his piano pieces and also the works of others; perhaps most famously Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which remains a standard of the repertoire.
Ravel is perhaps best known for his Boléro. He wrote many more fine works including Miroirs, 5 pieces for piano (which includes the well known Alborada del gracioso), the showy Tzigane, the exuberant and optimistic Piano Concerto in G major, the choreographic poem La Valse and the piano piece Gaspard de la nuit.
It is well nigh impossible to select a best work by Ravel but we have chosen to add his Pavane pour une infante défunte to our collection in both the original piano version and in the later orchestration prepared in 1910. This miniature piece expresses a nostalgic enthusiasm for Spanish customs and sensibilities.
The orchestral version is scored for two flutes, oboe, two clarinets (in B-flat), two bassoons, two horns, harp, and strings. This version is in my opinion an improvement on the original piano piece, but listen and decide for yourself.
There is a well-judged orchestral version performed by George Szell with his Cleveland Orchestra.
For a piano version one need look no further than Angela Hewitt’s fine account of the work in a first-rate 2 CD set containing all of Ravel’s wonderful solo piano music.