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I had the pleasure of performing this piece – Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte – over the weekend and while it is fresh in my mind, I thought it appropriate to blog on this lovely excerpt.
Many times the manner in which an orchestral solo is performed in context differs greatly from how it is done at an audition. This excerpt is a prime example. There are at least two notable differences: the use of vibrato and where to breathe.
Interestingly, the title – Pavane pour une infante défunte – means absolutely nothing. Apparently composer Maurice Ravel just liked the sound of those words in that combination.
Ravel’s use of word-play in this title is reminiscent of techniques used in the works of French poet Mallarmé. The words become less about meaning and more about how they sound in combination, or for how they look on the page.
The only word in the title to really pay attention to is “pavane,” which is a slow processional dance originating from the 16th century.
The topic of vibrato on the horn – as with other select instruments, such as the clarinet – tends to be a thorny issue. Some musicians are vehemently against it, while others are more open to the idea.
Rather than spelling out my own specific preferences, I will only mention one general comment. If vibrato is used, take care that it is not a mechanical application. It should be organic, spun out from the phrasing of the line without being a constant waver turned on and off for vibrato’s sake.
A convincing, confident vibrato can sound absolutely beautiful. A weak or robotic vibrato can be more of a distraction rather than a thing of beauty. In this case, a straight tone may be the better option.
At auditions, using vibrato can be risky – while a woodwind or string player may enjoy a little vibrato, chances are that someone on the audition committee will not.
Whether intended or not, Ravel did the solo horn a big favor in his second horn writing. In the 4th and 5th measures, the Horn II doubles key notes of the Horn I line; this affords the solo player a nice chance to take a breath if needed.
Myself, I avoid breathing between measures 2 and 3, and instead sneak a breath after the downbeat of the 4th or/and 5th measure. Since the second horn doubles these notes, breaths at these points are unnoticed. This technique gives the opening melody the appearance of being seamless, as if floating on air.
Of course, this is not something to be done in an audition, but rather within the context of an orchestra performance. When properly phrased, breaths at these spots are virtually invisible.
Be advised that a conductor might take the infante défunte (dead princess) aspect literally and opt for a very funereal tempo – in one rehearsal I had to play it as slow as 40 beats per minute. In hindsight I wish that I had prepared for this a bit better.
The pianissimo dynamics should not be taken too literally. They might be better viewed as more an indication of color rather than as a set decibel level. A healthy mezzo-piano dynamic works fine and is infinitely better than an anemic pianissimo.
At measure 7, something very special occurs. The harmony takes a poignant turn.
- Be prepared to watch the conductor like a hawk and wait for the harp arpeggio. You may need to stretch out the written E’s longer than you had planned.
- The sustained note at rehearsal 4 is the perfect opportunity to spin a healthy vibrato, starting it slowly and speeding it up over the duration of the held note.
- Sail to the written G – myself, I savor it a bit and hang onto it as if it were marked tenuto. The quarter notes following the G should move ahead a little to balance out this liberty.