Program notes: Orli Shaham with Festival Musicians

Thursday, August 3, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Maurice Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)

Reena Esmail: Saans (Breath)

Maurice Ravel: Trio in A Minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello

Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Composed: 1899
Length: c. 7 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo piano

Ravel composed his Pavane pour une infante défunte while still a student at the Paris Conservatory, studying under Fauré. The work’s title, translated as “Pavane for a deceased infanta” (an infanta is a Spanish or Portuguese princess), caused some confusion as it was chosen for its alliterative qualities (try reading the title aloud in your best French!) rather than for its literal meaning. Ravel tried to clear up the issue:

For me, by assembling the words that compose the title, I was only thinking of the pleasure of the alliteration. Don’t attach more importance to this title than it actually has. Avoid dramatization. It is not the funeral lament of an infanta who just died,but the evocation of a pavane that such a little princess could have danced, formerly, in the court of Spain.

The piece is a miniature gem. The initial melody is a melancholy theme that appears three times in the piece. Interspersed is contrasting material, but the power of Ravel’s piece is in its mesmerizing uniformity of mood and affect. He arranged the work for orchestra in 1910.

Saans (Breath)

Reena Esmail (b. 1983)

Composed: 2017
Length: c. 9 minutes
Instrumentation: Piano, violin, and cello

Reena Esmail is an Indian American composer who has trained extensively both in Western and Hindustani classical music, making her uniquely situated to compose music that seamlessly marries the two traditions. Importantly, her immersion in the styles was not limited to the notes, scales, and forms of the music, but depended deeply on the culture of music-making in the two traditions: the manner in which musicians communicate with each other onstage and with their audiences.

While some of Esmail’s extensive catalog includes traditional Indian instruments (or Hidustani vocalists), most of her music uses Western instruments to evoke connections to Indian styles. Saans (meaning “breath” in Hindi) is a movement for piano trio that Esmail adapted from the slow movement of her 2017 Clarinet Concerto. She presented the arrangement to her friend Suzana Bartal on the occasion of her wedding. She explains,

To me, the larger story is that music and writing music has so much to do with relationships and valuing the people that I love. And so, I think one of the reasons it has its resonance in the world is because it is so personal.

There is a lyrical, vocal style to Saans, opening with an ornamented and improvisatory theme in the piano with a rhythmic flexibility that feels almost conversational. The three instruments are in constant dialogue, echoing each other and generating new material by extending musical ideas offered by one another.

Trio in A Minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Composed: 1914
Length: c. 28 minutes
Instrumentation: Piano, violin, and cello

Ravel spent the summer of 1914 in St. Jean-de-Luz, not far from where he was born along the Bay of Biscay in the Basque portion of southern France. It was here he began work in earnest on his Piano Trio. As the summer progressed and the war threatened to engulf the whole of Europe, Ravel grew increasingly restless and agitated, feeling the urge to contribute to France’s war effort. At the same time, he worried about what his participation might do to his aging mother, to whom he was especially close. A letter written to a friend on August 4—a day after France had officially entered the war—reveals his conflicting emotions at the time. In it, he writes, “I’m working [on my Trio]—with an insane certainty and lucidity. But, during this time, depression is also at work, and suddenly I find myself sobbing over my sharps and flats.”

Just a couple of days after this, Ravel was seized with the notion that he should enlist—with sights on serving in the French Air Force—despite being nearly 40 years old and in questionable health. Feverishly, he worked to complete the Trio in the few weeks before volunteering for service.

With his slight build and enlarged heart, the French Air Force wouldn’t take him, but the persistent Ravel eventually was given the position of a truck driver on the front line. And although his two years in the war were fraught with danger, hardship, and serious illness, they were deeply satisfying for Ravel, who habitually signed his wartime letters “Driver Ravel.” As for the Piano Trio, it premiered in January 1915, with famed Italian composer Alfredo Casella playing the demanding piano part (which Ravel himself admitted was “too difficult for its composer to play”).


What to listen for

  • First movement: The main theme of the first movement is based on a Basque style, a kind of slow, uneven, and halting dance—listen for a 3+2+3 beat division.
  • Second movement: A “Pantoum” is a poetic verse form with Eastern roots in which alternating lines repeat in consecutive verses. You can track Ravel’s adaptation of the form as he interweaves two contrasting textures, the first jumpy and detached and the second wildly undulating.
  • Third movement: The pentatonic main melody here first appears in the three instruments in succession, exploiting the lowest registers of each.
  • Fourth movement: It’s hard not to associate the wild extravagance of the finale—pay attention to the majestically massive piano chords with shimmering accompaniment—with Ravel’s frenzied patriotism as he dashed off the final notes of the score and hurried to join the war effort.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi