Loving Ravel’s “Pavane”

April 6, 2010

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Today I lectured about Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infant Défunte” (1899). The title was chosen primarily for its assonance: say it over and over; it has a lovely lilt. Reminds me a bit of the Webern piano variations. I digress.

The piece made Maurice a lot of money all in all, a fact that he was somewhat embarrassed to admit, poo-pooing its form, its youth, its melancholy. Feh. It’s a terrific piece.

The form is A-B-A’-C-A” It’s a rondo whose theme stays the same but the texture varies with each reappearance. Each section has its own phrase logic. The B section is comprised of the first phrase, b1, followed by a variant, b2, and then two overlapping b1 phrases: then this all repeats, is varied texturally, and followed by a final b1 phrase, cast in parallel dominant 9th chords.

I can hear [my old music theory teacher] Bruce Benward now: “Now class, THIS is an example of PARALLELISM” referring to the successive E9 D9 C9 D9 E9 over which the class marvels, having just been warned against the evils of parallel 5th in traditional harmony.

Everything in Benward’s 20th century music class was an “-ism.” Benward might be considered an ism-ist. I, for one, am OVER isms, so I guess I would be and “anti-ism-ist” or better yet: an over-ism. I digress.

We analyzed the A section primarily, given the time we had, and then we turned to Ravel’s 1910 orchestration for “petite” orchestra. We zoomed back and forth between what Ravel did in the piano original, and how it was orchestrated.

I learned that teaching “texture” to freshmen is a tricky task. We listened to the opening passage several times: first, just the horn melody. I warned the terror of the horn player who is nervous or not warmed up or not good enough to handle the part. It is utterly exposed. Beware! And I would have warned Ravel of that as well.

I played the passage again and asked the class to listen to just the “sustain” element. When one plays the piano, we hold down the pedal, thereby sustaining harmonies. One must find the “pedals” in the orchestra.

Then, we concentrated on the pizzicato strings and bass element.

The ever-present eighth note is like a ticking clock throughout, always on the verge of a ritard and popping a sentimental tear.

I can’t really test them as to whether they are following my illustrations, but I think they do. In that they have an orchestration project ahead of them, I hope they follow.

For instance: if I were to say to you “A solo oboe place a long sustained note, crescendoeing, and gaining in vibrato.” Do you hear it? Yes, you do. That’s how composers and orchestrators think. They imagine and hear their ideas and write them down.

We didn’t finish the piece, and analyzing this piece is beyond the scope of the class, but I am confident that they got something. The opening rondo theme and its variant was plenty for our purposes.

One amazing detail I discovered: in the A section, of the 31 chord changes that occur, 23 of them involve a bass line (and usually the root motion) that goes up or down a fifth. Sometimes he’ll march up bass lines in fourths (quartal arpeggios), and sometimes he lingers on just a few–say, three. And then jump a non-fifth interval to open up a new chain of quartal bass lines. He uses this wind-chime effect of fanning a few note many years later in Chanson Madécasses.

I reminded the class that Ravel was 24 when he wrote this piece: a graduate student in modern day equivalence. “The piece you write for your midterm project COULD be a hit someday You never know! NO! It really could.”

Next week: Le Tombeau de Couperin

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