I'm hard-pressed to think of a more relaxing piece of music than Gabriel Faure's Pavane. The orchestral arrangement, taken at a slow, deliberate but delicate tempo, always puts me in a pleasingly melancholy mood, its gently swooning main melody being perfect for a quiet rainy day or an afternoon free of classes.
The Pavane is probably not Faure's most important work (that would be his Requiem), but it has become one of his most popular and most commonly performed. I was introduced to the piece by working on a transcription of it in high school band. Different recordings of it occupy two of the top five spots on Faure's page on Spotify.
Faure was born in 1845, and he had a long career before his death in 1920, publishing his first piano work at age 18 and only retiring due to encroaching deafness at the age of 75. In the intervening years, he not only composed many works for piano, choir, and orchestra, but also worked, first as a professor and later as director, at the Paris Conservatoire, where he counted George Enescu and Maurice Ravel (who later wrote his own pavane, the Pavane for a Dead Princess) among his students.
As a young man Faure studied under composer Camille Saint-Saens and church musician Louis Niedermeyer. Faure would spend the next several decades earning his keep by working as a church organist and giving private lessons, and doing his composing during summers, not unlike Mahler. Faure composed his Pavane during one such summer, in 1886.
The "pavane," from which Faure's piece borrows its title and its underlying rhythm, is a sixteenth century court dance, performed in pairs, often as part of a wedding procession.
Faure's Pavane exists in two versions, one for piano and one for a small orchestra and chorus. The piece was initially conceived as an instrumental, but choral parts were added at the suggestion of the Countess Greffulhe, who was a patron of the arts in France, and a supporter of Faure's at the time. It's been suggested that the choral parts were only added to please the Countess, and it is as an orchestral piece — without a choir — that the Pavane is most commonly performed today. The orchestral version is simply the orchestra-and-choir arrangement of the piece with the choral parts left out.
The piece's stately pace, which lends the melody its halting grace, has much to do with its frequently cited calming effect. However, in something of an ironic twist, Faure apparently intended for his Pavane to be played at a faster tempo, with a quarter note pulse of at least 100 beats per minute. The English conductor Adrian Boult once wrote a letter to The Musical Times, complaining about the slowing of the piece's tempo in modern performances — though it doesn't appear that his opinion has been paid very much attention in the ensuing years.
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