I first heard the Fauré Pavane on an album called “Romances for Saxophone” (1986), featuring American jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis (brother of the equally brilliant musician, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis).
This was around the time I became an intern and joined the salaried work-force. All at once I was earning a princely Rs. 1000/- a month, which I could spend as I wished. I would set aside Rs. 100/- every month to splurge on music cassettes from VP Sinari’s shop near the old Secretariat, the only go-to destination then. I began to really broaden my musical tastes around this time, and not just in classical music.
The title and the artist seemed to suggest it would be an album of smooth jazz, but all its thirteen tracks were short pieces by composers of classical music: apart from Fauré, it also had works by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Satie, Mussorgsky, Villa-Lobos and Colombier.
The Pavane had Marsalis and the English Chamber Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Andrew Litton. The lyrics were in French and sounded really exotic to my ears. I couldn’t understand what they meant, but the music seduced me.
This was the pre-Google era, so it took a while for me to glean more information about pavanes in general, and the work by Fauré in particular.
The pavane is a slow processional dance (weddings and at royal and noble courts) of Italian origin that was immensely popular in the courts of Europe (especially the powerful Spanish court) at the peak of the Renaissance period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word ‘pavane’ is believed to have come from the Italian ‘danza Padovana” (‘dance typical of Padua’), or from the Spanish “pavón” meaning peacock. It is stately in tempo and spirit, and in duple meter.
Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924) wrote this Pavane for a series of light summer concerts in 1887. He took great pleasure in writing it, which is remarkable as he had a somewhat lukewarm interest in the tonal colours of the orchestra. In the words of his biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux: “He had a horror of vivid colours and effects, and showed little interest in combinations of tone-colours, which he thought were too commonly a form of self-indulgence and a disguise for the absence of ideas….Fauré’s lack of interest in the orchestra is sometimes criticized as a weakness…” Fauré struggled unsuccessfully to write a symphony, and abandoned or destroyed many orchestral scores. He wrote a mere clutch of works for large ensembles although some of them are for immense forces: his Prométhée is scored for three wind bands, 100 strings, 12 harps, and choir.
The Pavane began as a piano piece and was then adapted for orchestra. The original score requires strings and a pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, although Fauré added an off-stage chorus shortly before the first performance in 1888. The lyrics, which bewail the romantic helplessness of man, were supplied by the poet Robert de Montesquiou, cousin of his patron Vicomtesse Elisabeth Greffulhe, to whom he dedicated the Pavane. The text makes references that would only be comprehensible to those familiar with the characters mentioned in it: Lindor, Tircis, Myrtille, Lydé, Eglé, Chloé. Despite this, the music conveys the sentiment of the poem beautifully. In the final bars, the altos sing plaintively “Goodbye then, and good day to the tyrants of our hearts” climbing a sorrowful interval of a diminished fourth and descending almost chromatically, in the form of a lament or sigh. The bass line then descends the ‘scale’ (a metaphorical descent into Hell, using ‘Jacob’s ladder’ in the opposite direction?) of the key (F sharp minor) of the composition, while the choir sings “And good day” (a pun on the greeting, but a wry one, for what is in store for the tormented hearts is anything but ‘good’) in unison, five notes above. The middle note in between the two is deliberately left out, leaving us to guess at whether we have ended, literally, on a ‘happy’ (major) or ‘sad’ (minor) note.
Fauré’s Pavane can be regarded as a deliberate exercise in orchestral colour, similar in this respect to Ravel’s Bolero. Fauré also wrote to his patron that he found de Montesquiou’s lyrics “delightful: the artfulness and coquetries of the female dancers and the great sighs of the male dancers will singularly enliven the music.” Thus one learns that the work was eventually choreographed as well. He goes on to say “If all this wonderful combination of attractive dance with handsome costumes, an orchestra and an invisible choir comes off, what a treat it should be!” Was Fauré being honest, or was he merely attempting to please his patron?
Both versions, with and without chorus, have proved immensely popular, and the Pavane has been transcribed for all sorts of forces, from solo guitar to brass band to string quartet, and as we have seen at the beginning of this article, solo saxophone, orchestra and chorus. Camerata Child’s Play India will perform an arrangement for strings (violins, violas, cello) and two flutes by my composer friend Liz Sharma, at our Monsoon concert on Sunday 5 July at 6 pm at Caritas St. Inez.
Fauré’s Pavane inspired his pupils to compose pavanes of their own: Debussy wrote a Passepied in his Suite Begamasque, and Ravel scored two, Pavane pour une infant défunte (Pavane for a dead Princess, which incidentally Camerata Child’s Play India also performed last year transcribed for the same forces as the Fauré arrangement ie. strings and flutes) and Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (Pavane for Sleeping Beauty) in Ma mere l’Oye (‘Mother Goose’).
With or without chorus, Fauré’s Pavane is an instrumental ‘chanson’ or ‘mélodie’ if you will, at once wistful, reflective, melancholic and uplifting. It was seen as sufficiently quintessentially French to be chosen by the BBC for their television coverage of the 1998 World Cup in France, just as Puccini’s Nessun Dorma had done the honours for the 1990 Cup in Rome. The Wimbledon Choral Society was commissioned to sing the chorus, and this recording became a Top 20 hit on the UK singles chart.
It even made it to Sex and the City. During the episode where Miranda tells Steve that she loves him, a muted jazz violin begins to play the melody softly, backed by piano, double-bass and drums (played upon by brushes rather than sticks). Good day to the tyrant of your heart, Miranda!
(An edited version of this article was published on 5 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)