Pavane For A Dead Princess

Today is the birthdate of celebrated French composer Maurice Ravel, born Ciboure, 7 March 1875; died Paris, 28 December 1937. Most Americans know his work through the vivacious Spanish-style Bolero, but Ravel also created many much more complex and subtle works.

To celebrate, our local classical station played his haunting piano solo Pavane pour une Infante d’funte, or, Pavane For A Dead Princess. This piece evokes emotions rich in nostalgia, mixture of sadness, sweetness and tenderness. Ravel wrote it at the age of 24. The following comment is attributed to him:

“It’s not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the Pavane which might have been danced by such a little princess(Princess Margarita) as painted by Velazquez at the Spanish court .”

This piece was a focal point of the classical music exposure of my teens, those difficult years. I do not believe I have heard it since 1959. After finally recognizing what I was hearing, and grasping that the entire piece was still an irrevocable part of me, I had to retire to the living room couch to hear the rest of it, discreetly dabbing at my eyes with a kleenex. It was an unexpected and intensely strong emotional reaction to that music which speaks to us personally of our pasts.

Such reactions are not uncommon. Most of us associate certain tunes or songs with special times in our lives. With the passage of time, the events may become less vivid, but the musical associations become, if anything, stronger with age. And therein lies a tale.

The summer of 1989 marked the last year my mother was well enough for social travel. Her short term memory was already failing. My brother drove her down to visit me one fine warm day. The living room was flooded with light and green plants. My giant Klipschorn loudspeakers were ideally suited for delivering orchestral sound to such a room, at any volume level however high or soft.

As a musical treat, I put on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which most people would recognize from the famous beginning opening chords. The room filled with the low notes of a giant concert grand piano. I beamed as I saw that my mother began to recognize the notes, and she smiled bravely.

And then she burst into hysterical tears. I had to turn the music off, and hug her and reassure her everything was OK, and try to find out what had happened.

As a young woman, before her first marriage, my mother used to date a Russian man named Sergei, who was an accomplished concert pianist. This was her favorite piece, and he would play it, just for the two of them. To her, this period in her life was one of unmitigated rapture, of absolute innocent confidence that the world was right for her, and her place in it was sacred.

The years passed. Her marriage to her second huband, my father, was a sometimes wonderful, sometimes rocky span of about two decades. My father died in 1959. But the Second Piano Concerto was never played in our household, before or after his death. I discovered it many years later in college.

It is not likely my mother had heard that song since the time she dated Sergei. My unwitting choice of concert on a sunny summer afternoon evoked all those wonderful but forever lost memories for the first time in decades. Music is a friend, and with memories of friends come the good times, and the sad. What remarkable and fortunate human beings we all are, that we can choose to make those times comes alive again and again by re-creating their emotions note by note, and chord by chord, in the audio spectrum of the here and now.

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