A Classical Listening Companion
With Mark Simmons, Radio Kansas Music Director
When Princesses become Defunct
At some point I’d like to discuss some of the issues in “presenting” Classical Music on the air in this day and age but, for today, I’d like to address a piece of music that is lovely to listen to but problematical to announce: Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.
Personally, the French pronunciation is not really a hurdle for me…except in the question of how many listeners will recognize the title in that particular incarnation. The issue of multilingualism in Classical Music is another post for another time: for now, I’m faced with the specific quandary of this particular work.
Most American listeners—a majority, anyway—know the piece as the “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”
Now a literal translation of the title would actually be: “Pavane for a Defunct Princess” which is less grim than a “Dead” Princess but still somewhat cold and perfunctory. A few recordings over the decades have tried “Pavane for a Sleeping Princess,” which softens the imagery but is somewhat misleading and suggests some sort of Rip Van Winkle effect as the pavane was intended for a young girl in “olden times.”
If you break down the title, you have three key words…
The first is “pavane” which is a slow, processional dance that was common in Europe during the 16th century Renaissance.
Then you have “infante” which is an historical Spanish term to denote the child of a monarch, generally in the historical kingdoms of Aragon, Castille, León, and Navarre as well as the Spanish Iberian kingdoms. The term is still in use even today.
And, finally, you have “défunte” (translation: “now defunct”) which is reinforced by historical timeline in which the pavane was a relevant dance.
The composer, himself, cut to the chase by saying that the piece was “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.”
There you have it: any little princess who danced a pavane similar to this, back in the 16th or 17th century would either be dead by now or sleeping in suspended animation—presumably like Snow White in a glass coffin, awaiting the kiss of a handsome prince to break the spell.
Neither mental image really serves this lovely piece so it makes sense to chuck the translations and return to the original title in French. In fact, when Ravel was asked about his choice of title he once responded with a “coy smile” and said: “Do not be surprised that the title has nothing to do with the composition…I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c'est tout."
I still worry, however, that I’ll confuse a number of listeners if I say “Pavane pour une infante défunte” instead of “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”
Given the current trends in pop culture, I suppose it’s inevitable that some 21st century composer will eventually produce a work entitled Pavane pour une infante mort-vivant*.
* Pavane for a Zombie Princess
About Mark Simmons
My earliest memories of music are of the classical pieces my kindergarten teacher played while we were supposed to be taking our afternoon nap. I am still haunted by the vivid imagery these sounds conjured in my impressionable, young mind.
My first instrument was the trombone, picked up in the third grade when I could barely reach “seventh position.” The following year I switched to E-flat tuba, beginning my “heavy metal” period with four years of orchestra hefting the “basso brasso” and then five years of band, shouldering the Double B-flat Sousaphone and marching in innumerable football games and three American Royal parades—inevitably, it seemed, behind the Clydesdales.
Somewhere along the way, I squeezed in a couple of years of piano, choir, formal voice (ask me about my debut performance of Panis Angelicus), then taught myself guitar and a little ukulele, earning some pocket change playing and singing in bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants through my college years (the standards were lower then).
My radio career began at KXTR-FM in Kansas City, Kansas—one of the few remaining “commercial” classical stations in the country at that time—and KBEA-AM. Although KXTR still broadcasts classical music today, it has been relegated to the AM band. Public Radio is practically the last refuge for classical music and culture on our airwaves.
In 1988 I moved to Southeast Kansas to help launch a new Public Radio Station: KRPS-FM in Pittsburg, Kansas. While I was there I began a new hobby. Some people hunt, some fish, some play golf; I write science fiction and fantasy. My seventh novel will be published in 2007. My wife calls my laptop the “metal mistress”. At least she knows where I am on nights and weekends.
In 1994 I accepted the position of Program Director for KEDM Public Radio in Monroe, Louisiana. A year later—just like my stint in television years before—I added a second hat, that of General Manager.
Although Hurricane Katrina did not touch us directly (we were in the Northeast region of the state), it was a wake-up call. My wife and I were homesick for the Midwest. Our family and friends were primarily spread through Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. I missed the “hands on” aspect of programming and presenting the Greatest Music of The Ages. How could I go forward without going backward?
Like an answer to prayer the Radio Kansas Network beckoned. I feel so blessed to be back in the heartland, working with a team of consummate professionals, and able to return to the microphone and the music stacks, sharing my favorite music with old friends and making many new ones along the way!
Earlier editions of Facing the Music
As I write this, we’re playing a recording of the Albinoni Adagio in G minor. I always feel a little sad for Remo Giazotto when a performance of this wonderful little gem airs…
Well this “most popular” of all of Albinoni’s compositions is largely (if not completely) the work of Giazotto. The longstanding story was that the musicologist and composer had run across a fragment of a manuscript by Albinoni recovered from the ruins of an old church after the World War II allied bombings in Dresden.
Giazotto claimed that the manuscript consisted of a few opening measures of the melodic line and a portion of a basso continuo section. From these fragments he “reconstructed” the work we know as “Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor.”
Over the years I’ve seen recordings that add such phrases as “arranged by R. Giazotto” or “realized by…” or completed by…” when they bothered to acknowledge the provenance at all.
It’s all rather murky but the scholarly consensus today is that Remo Giazotto composed the Adagio in G minor and Albinoni may have provided just a tiny bit of its “inspiration.”
I always try to acknowledge Giazotto when presenting the piece on the air but I believe that Albinoni will continue to take full credit for the foreseeable future. (Though Giazotto did copyright the music and one might assume his heirs still benefit from the work’s popularity and large recording catalog.)
However you look at it, it’s still a wonderful piece of music and you can be sure it will pop up within the next few weeks if you keep your dial tuned to Radio Kansas.