Ravel’s Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte is one of his most well known and lovely pieces. There are two versions of it–one for piano and one for orchestra. Pavane means a kind of slow processional dance, and Ravel’s is “for a dead princess.” Ravel did not write the piece for anyone in particular, though he had a patron named, Winaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and who was a princess by marriage to one Prince Edmond de Polignac. The word “infante,” refers to the child of a Spanish monarch, the French word for child being “enfante.” Ravel wrote the piece while studying music under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatory. At the time, things Spanish were the vogue in Paris, and he wrote it to evoke the pleasant emotions of things Spanish in general and the the sounds that the word infante had on him in specific.
Ravel wrote the Pavane for piano, but it has also been scored for orchestra and string quartet. A search on youtube revealed a version for four harps as well. Though Ravel later thought of this early work as immature and poorly executed, it remains a favorite–its haunting, gentle melody as touching as Debussy’s Claire de la Lune.
When Ravel performed the work on piano, he played it much more slowly than other interpreters. Yet when he heard plodding versions of it, he reportedly quipped: “it’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”
I hadn’t heard this piece for a long time, but coincidentally, a friend of mine who is a cellist performed it with his string quartet a couple of nights ago at a fund raiser for the Duke Ellington School for the Performing arts in Washington, DC. What it invokes in me, is the memory of a man named Josef and his daughter, whom I met in 1977 while hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona (described below).
Pavane for a Truck Driver’s Daughter
Ingebord, Chris and I had left Paris the day before and had only gotten as far as Lyons, just about half way to the Mediterranean. There we had not been received with open arms by the former dorm mate of mine from the French House, where I lived in college. He had acted upset at my calling so late. This was back in 1977, when life in France was a bit slower and people had the luxury of going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening.
We left Lyons a bit groggy-eyed. Fortunately the rain had let up and the sun warmed us a bit as we stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out. I cannot remember all the rides we had that day, but I do remember the last one. A fairly genial young man, maybe in his late twenties to mid thirties, picked us up in his big moving van. He had fairly long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and soft features. Back then in France I remember being struck at how people seemed to have a number of well defined class and socio-economic roles. These weren’t necessarily seen as bad. In fact, they gave a well defined structure to ones work and career life, freeing one up to lead enriching interior lives. Our truck driver had a job, a truck, and a house. The state took good care of him. He had all he needed. But I wouldn’t necessarily call him complacent.
He lived in Avignon, and as the day was drawing to a close by the time we got that far, he offered to put us up for the night with his family. After the night before, we tired gypsies rejoiced at our good fortune.
Let’s call our host Josef. Josef lived in a nice two-story house in a small suburb of villas that lay on either side of eucalyptus lined streets. His wife greeted us and did not seem at all put out by his having brought us home. Inside we found a very comfortable place in the Mediterranean style with marble floors and efficient cupboards, shelves and organizers. The place had big windows that on the second floor opened out onto a balcony which commanded a breathtaking view of the mountains. He told me that when the Mistral blew, it would blow debris onto the balcony and it was awesome to watch the force and speed of it in that tight space. On the ground floor on the other side of the house he took us into his ample back yard where he had a sizeable garden. It was there that I first saw an espalier, which is when they train and prune the branches of a fruit tree to run along a low frame or a fence so that the fruit can be easily harvested.
Back inside the house, Josef’s wife fed us a great meal that we shared with their two beautiful children, a boy and a girl about 3 and 5. After dinner, we sat around talking. He was not snobby or impatient with my French and I found myself having a nice conversation with him. We did not watch TV–I’m not sure if they owned one and it would have been an affront I’m sure to put it before one’s guests.
When it was time to turn in, he showed us our rooms. On the way, we passed a family photo. In it I saw there were three children–an older girl who had not sat with us at the table. When I asked him about her, Josef said “Oh. That was my oldest daughter. She passed away last year. She had a bad heart.” And as he said it, he brought his right hand up in a tender gesture and tapped lightly over his own heart. My own heart aches now, 36 years later, as I remember what a sad thing to have happen to such a sweet guy. Yet, he did not seem to have a victim’s mentality or feel outraged at his luck. “Yes, that is life,” he sighed.
When I first got to Paris, there was a big flap in the papers at how the Americans had developed the neutron bomb. This bomb, we were told, would create a blast of sub-atomic particles that would not harm buildings but which would kill all animal life in the vicinity where it was dropped. Somehow that was seen as the perfect weapon. To my mind, it represents the purest of evil. Way back before there were guns, armies fought hand to hand and the terror of that I’m sure made power hungry men think twice before leading their troops into battle. World War II, pretty much dropped the pretense that war was fought by soldiers for noble causes and the civilian population was not to be included in the target. With this bomb, however, you could wage war from afar, never seeing your enemy, which it killed indiscriminately-men, women and children, soldiers and civilians.
Because I did come from America and bought into the victim’s “why me?” mentality, I took every affront by Parisians personally. Therefore, I am ashamed to say, when news of the neutron bomb broke, I joked that Paris was the perfect place to drop the neutron bomb–“get rid of the Parisians and it would be a great place.”
That was before I met Josef, however, who restored my faith not just in the French but in all of humanity. It reminds me of a quote I recently heard by the fiction writer, Scot Turow. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” a character asks. “I’m convinced that God does that to us to bring us together. If everything were perfect and there was no suffering, we’d all just be these individuals doing our own thing.” That pretty much sums up what I learned from Josef. It’s when you meet people who have so much warmth and dignity and take life as it comes, that your really know that life is truly worth living.