In 1887, just before he began work on his famous Requiem composer Gabriel Fauré wrote a light Pavane for the piano.
The piece has since existed in many different versions, including orchestrated, with orchestra and chorus, as well as part of a one-act divertissement Masques et Bergamasques. It’s the orchestral version that makes its way into the soundtrack and the action of the Hulu show Only Murders in the Building.
Note: Spoilers through episode 4 of Only Murders in the Building will follow.
Pavane may be Fauré’s most-heard work overall. In 2016 The Atlantic labeled it the track of the day “to work to,” and it has appeared in movies like Stillwater and Ice Castles. But generally in these instances it is missing the lyrics, which were added at the request of the dedicatee – French socialite Elisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe.
The countess’s cousin, poet Robert de Montesquiou, provided the poetry in what Fauré himself described as a “thankless task.” Essentially the lyrics a job for the chorus to allow them to be present, just to make the piece a bigger spectacle.
A pavane itself is a slow courtly dance which dates back to 16th century Venice. Though the name seems derivative of the Italian “padovana,” it’s also quite similar to the Spanish word for peacock: “pavón.” And while the origin is Italian, the dance is far more associated with Spain.
An entry on the pavane in a dance manual by Thoinot Arbeau describes couples in procession, with occasional ornamentation in the footwork. And the Dictionnaire de Trevoux points out that it was an excellent way for the royals to show off their outfits at the start of a ball, which leads the association with peacocks to begin to hit home. The male dancer’s acknowledgement of the lady is even called a position “en se pavanant” – meaning “like a peacock.”
Speaking of peacocks:
How provocative they are, how proud they are always!
How they dare reign over our fates and our days!
-lyrics from Faure’s ‘Pavane’
Is there a more peacock-fitting place than an apartment building on Manhattan’s upper west side like The Arconia?
Theater director Oliver (Martin Short) and artist Mabel (Selena Gomez) seem to be an obvious fit to this trope, with his purple coat (how could a taxi not see him?) and her yellow faux fur. But it’s actually Steve Martin’s somewhat bumbling actor Charles who joins bassoonist Jan (Amy Ryan) in a somewhat romantic duo from their windows across the courtyard of The Arconia.
This continues a long-running trope of Steve Martin’s love interests playing unexpected musical instruments – Bernadette Peters on the trumpet and Victoria Tennant on the tuba. And while Martin is quite accomplished on the banjo, he takes a concertina into his duet as well as the podcast soundtrack.
How ugly they are! Sweet faces!
How crazy they are! Coquettish airs!
The diegetic use of the Pavane isn’t the only classical music that comes into the action. Oliver feels sorry for himself with a half-hearted rendition of the Chopin E minor prelude – possibly the most sad thing anyone can play, paired with a binge of a multilevel marketing smoothie. A more lovely sequence comes at the end of episode 2 as the characters consider their individual dilemmas while paying tribute to a choreography piece by Yoann Bourgeois.
The score from composer Siddhartha Khosla sometimes seems to pay tribute to the Faure as it more than capably builds the requisite tension. The bassoon, so prevalent in the Pavane‘s orchestration, is very present. And when Oliver imagines a casting call for all of their suspects, the opening fanfare also seems to recall the piece.
The building’s intrigue abounds. Mabel holds her secrets from her colleagues in murder-themed podcasting. Neighbors still hold a grudge over the the deceased Tim Kono’s behaviors (leaving them unable to use their fireplaces). Musician Sting, of all people, blames himself for Kono’s death (but not the dog or cat poisonings), in a building he describes as “seeped in guilt and regret.” Oliver is short on money, which as the Tim could attest, can be a deadly problem. Multiple animals have been poisoned. And everyone in The Arconia seems to loathe each other, with the exception of Evelyn the cat, may she rest in peace.
And it’s always the same! And will be so always!
They love one another! They hate one another!
They curse their loves!
Just as Fauré’s Pavane inspired more updating of renaissance dance forms from his contemporaries, shows like In the Dark and Serial have been leaders in a whole trend in podcasting. While true crime shows have been on television for decades, the haunting audio storytelling plays to our imagination. We can imagine these grisly crime scenes as easily as we can see the elaborate outfits of the Spanish court when we hear a pavane.
Only Murders in the Building has a dark side to its quirky comedy. And like a pavane, it holds darkness in traces of the “old” – in the show’s case a beautiful pre-war New York building. With season 1 not even being halfway over, like in a good podcast, many twists are sure to come. Given the vocal talents of Selena Gomez and Martin Short, the instrumental abilities of Steve Martin, and Nathan Lane in the building, hopefully a musical sequence is on its way. And in the end the resolution of the mystery will surely surprise us all.
Farewell and good days to the tyrants of our hearts!