I attended a concert recently where the orchestra performed Maurice Ravels "Pavane pour une infante défunte." Are you familiar with the song? It has such a sad but beautiful melody. Here it is:
* Like many of Ravel’s orchestral works, this one originated as a solo piano piece.
* A pavane is a slow, processional 16th-century court dance, probably of Italian origin.
* Ravel chose the title because he liked the way it sounded in French!
Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte [Pavane for a dead princess] is a salon piece that made good. Written in 1899 for solo piano, it became enormously popular among the French bourgeoisie, considerably boosting Ravel's then slender reputation. His earliest surviving compositions date from 1893; this one was thus the first "big hit." Understandably he was quite critical of it in later years, writing in 1912:
Alas, its faults I can perceive only too well: the influence of Chabrier is much too glaring, and the structure rather poor. The remarkable interpretations on this inconclusive and conventional work have, I think, in great measure contributed to its success.
His reference to "remarkable interpretations" alludes to the title, which spurred countless romantic and literary fancies among its interpreters and listeners at the turn of the century. Ironically, Ravel confessed that his evocative title was primarily chosen because of its mellifluous alliterative appeal in his native tongue.
The Pavane, which Ravel orchestrated in 1910, shares with many of his other pieces a loose association with Spain (whose royal princesses are called "infantas"). Otherwise it is rather atypical of his music. The style is deliberately archaic, a concession to the slow, processional sixteenth-century Italian dance from which it takes its name. Major sevenths and ninths give it its rich harmonicaura. Even at age 24, Ravel knew how to establish and maintain a magical mood.
Ravel transcribed the Pavane for a small orchestra of two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, harp and muted strings.
Of course, I hummed the tune of Ravel's Pavane all the way home, and that made me think about other sad songs -- so below are four additional tunes that I would rank with the Pavane in my "Top Five Sad Songs of All Time":
Barber's Adagio for Strings
Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor
Mozart's Lacrimosa (from his Requiem)
Elgar's Nimrod (from his Enigma Variations)
* In addition to being the theme used in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon, Samuel Barber’s piece was broadcast over radio at the announcement of FDR’s death, it was broadcast on television at the announcement of JFK’s death, and it was played at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco.
* Albinoni’s piece was the main theme for the movie Gallipoli, the 1981 Australian film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee about several rural Western Australian young men who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War (the minute the theme began playing, I realized the film would be a downer).
* Mozart’s Lacrimosa is from his Requiem in D minor, K. 626, a requiem mass commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death.
* The opening bars of "Nimrod" were made to suggest the theme in the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathétique. Also, this piece has become popular in its own right and is often used at British funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at the Cenotpah, Whitehall in London at the National Service of Remebrance.
Below: The second movement to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathétique, the inspiration for Elgar's Variation IX of his Enigma Variations:
Do you have favorite sad songs -- others that are not on my list? Please let me know (add a comment below)! I'd be happy (and I suppose sad) to listen to them!