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What is the meaning of Faure's Pavane?

A Pavane, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1897
A Pavane, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1897

Faure’s Pavane of 1887 is a short orchestral work based on a Spanish courtly dance of the same name. Its unforgettable main melody has made it one of the composer’s most popular pieces, a status it certainly enjoys here on 8notes (we have more than 70 versions of the Pavane to choose from so you should be able to find the sheet music for your instrument or ensemble). Here's the full story, including the hidden meaning of this elegant classic of nineteenth century French music.

Genesis of a classic

Gabriel Faure originally composed the piece for solo piano, later adapting it for orchestra with optional chorus and dancers for a series of summer concerts conducted by Jules Danbé (initially it was only played with orchestra). The text was provided by French dandy, Robert de Montesquiou, one of the more colourful artistic characters in French society, memorably described by author William Sansom as:

Tall, black-haired, Kaiser-moustached, he cackled and screamed in weird attitudes, giggling in high soprano, hiding his black teeth behind an exquisitely gloved hand—the poseur absolute.
Robert de Montesquiou in 1885 [Source: Wikipedia]

Faure called Montesquiou’s text ‘delightful’, adding ‘If the whole marvellous thing with a lovely dance in fine costumes and an invisible chorus and orchestra could be performed, what a treat it would be!’ He didn’t have to wait too long—the full version was premiered in 1891 with dancers and chorus in a garden party given by Faure’s patroness, to whom he dedicated the work, Elisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe.

So what is the meaning of it all?

Given that the work started life as a solo work for piano you could say that it has no meaning at all, beyond being an elegant dance with a ravishingly attractive main melody.

The addition of the dramatic elements of text and dance changed this, however. The text references the mythical Greek seductresses Aphrodite, symbolised by the myrtle plant, and Leda (‘It’s Myrtil! it's Lydé! the queens of our hearts!’) and contains warnings about the dangers of becoming slaves to excess ‘Soon we'll be their lackeys!’ This would have made particular sense in the context of time, in which idle French aristocrats wasted their time on sensual pleasures flowing the difficult period of the Franco-Prussian war.

The lyrics also contains some good jokes for the accompanying musicians, who are asked to play accurately and not too slowly:

Pay attention!
Observe the measure!

O the deadly insult!

The pace is less slow!

And the fall more certain!

A danced performance of Faure’s Pavane with choir:

Not a dirge

The joke about the tempo might also be taken as a recommendation. Nowadays the piece tends to be played at an almost funereal tempo. Conductor Adrian Boult heard Fauré himself play the piece several times, and said that he never played it at less than a fairly sprightly 100 beat per minute. At such a tempo the piece becomes less a piece of heavy late romanticism, but rather a light and airy work with a knowing twinkle in its eye.

Later influence and use in popular culture

The work inspired later French composers to write Pavanes, such as Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Pavane de la belle au bois dormant in Ma mère l’oye and Debussy’s Passepied in his Suite bergamasque.

The pavane, with its often deliberately archaic mood continued to inspire composers thereafter. The third part of George Enescu’s Piano Suite No. 2 Op. 10 (1903) is a Pavane, as is the second movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (1926). More recently, English rock band the Strawbs released a track entitled ‘Tears and Pavan’ (2018) whilst the first track of progressive folk band Amazing Blondel’s album ‘Evensong’ (1970) is also a ‘Pavan.’

Faure’s piece itself also has made it’s appearance in popular culture, being used in the 2008 biographical film Il Divo:

and in the BBC opening titles for its coverage of the 1998 Football World Cup: