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Jessica Liu

Final Paper

The Colors of the Horn in Ravels Pavane for a Dead Princess
I wrote a Pavane for a Dead Princess, not a Dead Pavane for a Princess
(Heninger). Ravel reprimanded a pianist after he performed a particularly slow
interpretation of the piece. Like any other composer, Ravel had a particular vision he
aimed to convey to the listener. Although the Pavane was originally written for piano,
Ravel rewrote the piece for a full orchestra in order to better convey the mood of the
music. When orchestrating the piece, he chose the horn for the opening solo in order to
use the unique qualities of the instrument to express the mournful character of the
Pavane. Although he notated the use of the valveless horn, the French horn is more
often played due to its utility, and expresses many similar qualities. The French horn is
descended from the valveless horn, and the sound quality of both play a critical role in
the overall melancholy effect on the listener.
Ravel incorporates many harmonies that make him unorthodox compared to
French composers of his time. He grew up near the Spanish border, thus explaining
why many scholars emphasize the extent to which Spanish themes influenced his music
(Orenstein 91). However, he was mentored by many French musicians, and merged
exoticism with French culture. Entering into the Paris conservatory at age 14, Ravel was
a student of Gabriel Faur (Heninger). He embraced non-conformity and harmonic
exploration as a result of his admiration of Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie (Hill 132).
Regarding the Pavane, twentieth-century composer Edward Burlingame Hill states, the
piece discloses traces of Faurs influence harmonically, but in musical substance it
marks a stage in the development of Ravels individuality (Hill 132).
Before the piece was written for an orchestra, Ravel first composed the Pavane
for piano in 1899 as an assignment for his teacher Gabriel Faur (Scharnberg 41). The
piece is a rondo, in ABACA form (Schreuder 40). He insisted that the name of the piece
had no meaning other than that he appreciated how the name sounded because of its
alliterative qualities (Cossart 324). Ravel later elaborated on the title, stating that the
Pavane is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane
that might have been danced by a little princess (Maurice). The name Pavane reflects
the Spanish court custom of performing a solemn ceremonial dance during royal
mourning (Pavane). While the piano piece received popular approval after it was
composed in 1899, Ravel soon became frustrated by the mediocre performances of
amateur pianists of his work (Huscher). He re-orchestrated the piece for chamber
orchestra in 1910. Ravel did not simply transcribe his piano works for the orchestra to
perform, but recomposed them after carefully considering the colors of each instrument
(Scharnberg 41).
The opening solo of the Pavane is one of the most well known in the horn
repertoire (Scharnberg 41). The dynamic is restrained to pianissimo as an echo, as if
the procession of the dance is approaching from afar. The introspective tone is ethereal,
projecting a thin but steady melody. The French horn introduces the theme in the first
ten measures over the steady plucking of the strings. The soloist is supported by a
second horn, which doubles in the fourth and fifth measures to allow the soloist to
breathe (Hembd). As a result, the opening melody is seamless, and the floating
sensation is maintained. In the sixth measure, the flute interjects and weaves through
the horn solo. In measure seven, the texture changes as the harp gives the horn
momentum through a sustained note. Towards the end of the phrase by measure ten,
the clarinets and bassoons play in homophony to add strengthen the melodic line as it
The theme is then passed on to the oboe, with a countermelody in the strings. As
the theme reappears, more instruments are added on. The flute and oboe plaintively
repeat the passage. This time, the horn adds onto the texture by growing in dynamic
towards the end of the phrase before diminishing back into nothing. The strings then
tread lightly into the melody, at a lower dynamic than before. Most phrases are plaintive
and rely more on miniscule changes in dynamic, but the last three measures of phrases
are marked by swelling and dying back down. As each repetition begins, the dynamic is
soft again, but the texture is completely different as a new instrument performs the solo.
Throughout the piece, the strings maintain a steady eight-note pulse, which also evokes
the imagery of a relentless ticking of time that inevitably brings death (Hesinger).
The horn is an appropriate choice as a solo instrument because of its historical
associations and technical abilities. The horn, the leader of the brass family, is
associated with nobility or triumph. As a courtly dance, the Pavane tells the story of
nobility. In addition, the French horn has a wide ride of timbre, ranging from rich and
rough to smooth and thin. The wide range of timbre of the horn may convey to the
listener a variety of emotions. As such, using the horn as a centerpiece in the Pavane
allowed Ravel flexibility in how he incorporated the horn in various parts of the piece.
For example, in the beginning the horn penetrates the monotony of the strings, but later
retreats to the background as the oboe carries on the melody.
Overall, Ravels consideration of each of the colors of the orchestra allowed him
to add various textures into the piece. As the solos shift between horn, oboe, violin, and
flute, each repetition of the theme is afforded a contrasting color. The horn is strong and
somber, the oboe more nasal and piercing, the violin calm and mellow, and the flute
more sweet and gentle. In measure 10, the strings swell to aid the horns arrival at the
end of the phrase, before it trades off the melody to the oboe. The development of the
Pavane provides another example of the range of textures, when the strings and winds
all play broadly in different intervals and rise and fall simultaneously. This section is the
loudest in the piece, although majestically so. This harmonious movement conveys
unity in the sorrowful mood, reflecting the alternating pain and submission stages of
mourning. In the final recapitulation, the flute and violins play the melody, while the harp
strums lightly, underpinning the current of movement. The horn solo starting from
measure seven is repeated in the last six measures. However, the third to last measure
utilizes all of the orchestral instruments to broaden the stately finale. The notes are
elongated, and a last burst of energy occurs, almost as a last stand, before the sound
dies out and the piece ends.
Ravel originally scored the solo for Cor solo en sol, which implies a valveless
horn. However, no modern recordings utilize the natural horn (Scharnberg 42). The
make of the hand horn is also imperfect and difficult, not to mention hard to transport
(Blandford 546). While the range on a valveless horn is limited, crooks on the valve horn
allowed for greater freedom in playing (Scharnberg 42). Many musicians thus chose the
valve horn, which became the French horn, even in Ravels time because it was
essential for their professional work. In order to retain the integrity of sound that Ravel
intended, horn players tried to imitate the valveless horn through various means
(Morley-Pegge 98).
The horn is acoustically unique from other brasswinds through its conical bore,
which allows it to have a distinct texture. It evolved from a hunting horn to a natural or
hand horn, into orchestral use, and later was adapted with valves (Meek 9). When the
valve horn was introduced, there were crooks to change the pitch. Eventually, the valve
mechanism was developed to allow the horn to play the chromatic scale (Pegge 95). As
a wind instrument, the horn can play soft, high notes when the hornist slowly releases
the air from his embouchure. Because the hand covers the bell, lowering the pitch and
softening the sound, the hornist does not have to suppress his airflow as much as
another instrumentalist who cannot mute the sound might (Scharnberg 42). By focusing
on a gentle tone and controlling breathing, the hornist maintains the plaintive sound
demanded by the solo (Scharnberg 42).
The tone of the horn better conveys the melancholy mood compared to the piano
version of the Pavane. In the orchestral version, the horn has the sole moving line in the
beginning, distilling a sense of loneliness. Nonetheless, the sound is robust as it
presses on towards the end of the first phrase in measure six. While the piano may play
at the same dynamic level as the horn, it cannot as easily nuance the dynamics within a
phrase. This does not make the piano inferior in any way, but simply makes it less
appropriate for conveying the mournful, yet firm character of the entrance.
With limited timbres and manpower, the piano naturally cannot vary in texture as
much as an orchestra can. The piano version of the Pavane consists of a simple melody
with broken chords. By orchestrating the piece for a virtuosic orchestra, Ravel allows
the different instruments to not only support each other, but also complement the
melodies as they move from one instrument to another to depict change in color or
voicing. In the original edition, Ravel added more chord tones to the melody and bass
when the first theme repeats (Schreuder 40). The melody moves to the tenor line, which
in the orchestral version is doubled by the flute and the clarinet. As such, the orchestral
score allows multiple instruments and timbres to play different moving parts, thus
creating a more diverse and richer texture than may be allowed by the piano.
Other aspects of the piano score are also strengthened by orchestration for
chamber orchestra. First, the eighth-note pulses throughout the piano score are played
in the same hand as the melody. Not only does this create a voicing challenge, but also
cannot create the same plucking, light timbre that is clearly presented by the violins.
Additionally, while the pulse is alternatively kept by the strings and the harp, the piano
does not resonate in the same way as either instrument. The orchestral Pavane
explores how to use timbre to effectively depict a scene of a courtly, mourning dance,
and has a range of instruments with which to convey mood.
When Ravel wrote the Pavane, he had already started experimenting with new
harmonies and formulating a composition style which celebrated exotic elements. His
dissatisfaction in how pianists conveyed the Pavane led him to take a second, new
approach to the piece and compose it for the orchestra. By carefully accounting for the
various qualities of each instrument, Ravel used orchestral instruments to his advantage
in order to better present a scene of a mournful, stately Spanish dance. His choice of
the horn as the featured soloist is critical to the characterization of the piece because
the horn plays the first lines. As the horn has evolved, musicians have attempted to pay
tribute to Ravels intentions in how the horn should communicate in the music. Not only
does the orchestral Pavane more clearly convey Ravels vision of the piece, but the use
of the horn is integral to setting the mood for the rest of the piece. Future analyses may
discuss how other instruments, if any, have evolved from the time of the Pavanes
composition, and compare their timbre to that of their predecessors. In addition, one
may compare Ravels adaptation of a piano work for orchestra with other composers
adaptations. Direct comparison of the orchestral and piano versions of the Pavane
reveal significantly different effects on the listeners due to the distinct groundwork of the
pieces. In understanding how composers use distinct traits of each instrument within
their compositions, listeners will better comprehend not only the intentions of the
composer, but also fully experience the setting the author paints within each piece.

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