Tuesday 7 February 2012

Pavane pour une infante défunte: the excruciating beauty of Ravel’s music

It’s the high note entry in the solo French Horn, floating in exquisitely over a string accompaniment. That’s what marks out this piece, the Pavane for a dead princess, as one of my favorite pieces of music. Of course it works as a piano piece, as Ravel originally composed it, but his orchestration finds an intensity that is impossible to achieve on the piano.
One reason for this is that there is never any certainty that the horn player will play that note without cracking. Even after years of expert tuition and diligent practice, even with the most musical of personalities, even the most experienced brass players approach solo entries like this with emotions ranging from respect to trepidation. So, for me, the individual player’s moment of truth, which comes every time he plays the first notes of this melody, contributes to the appreciation of this music: every time it is played there is a private, personal musician’s story being played out. I have discussed the relationship of musicians to their music in a previous post  
Ravel’s skill at orchestrating music has been recognized by followers in many styles. One Hollywood film score after another is indebted to him for its sound palettes, and Nelson Riddle, one of Frank Sinatra’s favourite and most effective arrangers, studied Ravel’s music and readily acknowledged the influence of the Frenchman’s technique on his own work in the swing, pop and film genres. You can read about this in Peter Levinson book September in the Rain
When I attended lectures in London years ago Professor Keith Swanwick spoke on aesthetics and referred back to the work of Louis Arnaud Reid and Suzanne Langer, whose Philosophy in a new key is especially enlightening on music. I have discussed elsewhere research conducted by Professor Susan Hallam on The Power of Music 

Professor Swanwick described a number of ways we respond aesthetically to a work of music. There is the physiological response, where the sound waves produced by the harmonic resonance impact on our neurological system and  cause that frisson of delight, that tingle down the spine which is occasionally so powerful it is almost painful.
Then there is the sentimental, associative response a kind of They’re playing our song moment, when we experience pleasurable emotions as we remember an occasion in the past when we heard this same piece of music and we associate the emotions of those happy memories with the music. I have discussed this emotion in a previous post writing a concert review  The there is a formal, intellectual appreciation, where we take delight in hearing/seeing the formal structure of a piece as it moves through from its opening notes to its final conclusion, each section making a logical contribution to the others.

For me, the Pavane pour une infante défunte pushes all the buttons, covers all bases and rings all these bells. From the high French Horn melody near the start to the shimmering strings at the end, this piece combines many aspects of aesthetic appreciation and is an example for me of the power of music, how music can be so moving that it is almost excruciating in its beauty.

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