Lost infanta

Ravel in 1906
Driving into work this morning I heard Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte played on Radio 3. I first remember hearing it in the orchestral version when I was in my teens, and loved it. Ravel had adapted the work in 1910, having composed it for piano in 1899. It was the original piano version that I heard this morning, and very beautiful it was too. Ravel does something magical with this piece, it is recognisably French, very much of its time and place. And yet, it has the feel of a courtyard in a Spanish palace, you can almost feel the sunlight penetrating through the shadows. It feels modern, but at the same time other worldly.

A piano roll of Ravel playing Pavane

I was musing on this because whenever I hear the first notes of Pavane I laugh - not because of anything funny in the music itself, but because of a memory. When I was at university, we were discussing the work in a music history lecture, and the lecturer commented with some acerbity that "she's [i.e. the Infanta] not lying there dead now, she's long gone and done with", so no mournful lutes around this Infanta's grave, but rather a recollection of someone long dead wandering through her palace. Which made me wonder - which Infanta was Ravel thinking of? Ravel said that the work was "an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court", so no particular princess. But, I do wonder if Ravel wasn't thinking of the small princess of Velasquez' famous painting Las Meninas.
Las Meninas / Velasquez. 1656. Margaret Theresa is aged five.
It wouldn't be too surprising if he was. 1899 was Velasquez' tercentenary, and Europe went temporarily Velasquez crazy. A new Hispanic arts journal in French, Bulletin Hispanique was launched, and just 2 years earlier an Iberian room was opened at the Louvre.

I must admit that I'm not generally a big fan of Velasquez, but there is something hugely endearing about this portrait. The little Infanta Margaret Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, has interrupted her parents' sitting for their portrait. We are viewing the painting from the point of view of her parents smiling down at their child. Velasquez himself is in the background on the left hand side brush in hand (you can spot Philip and his wife reflected in the mirror at the back of the room), so we are cleverly seeing the painting both from the King and Queen's viewpoint but also from the artist's. Except that what we're seeing is not what the artist is seeing even though he painted this - confused???

I think the reason that I find the picture so heart-warming is that unlike so many portraits of the period it does away with formality. There's a lot of love in this portrait. The Infanta's dwarves checking to see that she's alright, her dog, who's probably bigger than her, lying at her feet, her nurse has a quick gossipy moment in the background, while the Queen's chamberlain (another Velasquez, who may have been a relative of the artist) stands like a guard-dog in the doorway protecting the small happy family. And the little girl at the centre of it all, who just appears to be a happy child. Is it just me, or doesn't she look as though she's about to dance?

Holy Roman Empress Margaret Theresa, painted, aged 16, by Jan Thomas

So what happened next? Margaret Theresa married the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, in 1665, the year after the death of her beloved father; and moved to Vienna. Leopold was 11 years older than Margaret, but the marriage appears to have been happy. Both loved the theatre and music. I like to think that she had a few happy years because after a series of miscarriages, and being safely delivered of only one child who survived to adulthood, Margaret Theresa died aged just 21. She is buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, a place I visited many years ago, without realising that the little girl of Las Meninas was buried there.

Many things make a great painting, and I'm no expert, but I think love lasts, and love comes bounding out of Velasquez' great work, and the piece of music by Ravel that I suspect owes at least a little to it.


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