Ravel described the piece as "an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court". The pavane was a slow processional dance that enjoyed great popularity in the courts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
This antique miniature is not meant to pay tribute to any particular princess from history, but rather expresses a nostalgic enthusiasm for Spanish customs and sensibilities, which Ravel shared with many of his contemporaries (most notably Debussy and Albéniz) and which is evident in some of his other works such as the Rapsodie espagnole and the Boléro.
Ravel dedicated the Pavane to his patron, the Princesse de Polignac. He published it in 1900, but it attracted little attention until the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes gave the first performance on April 5, 1902. The work soon became very popular, although Ravel came to think if it as "poor in form" and unduly influenced by the music of Chabrier.
Ravel intended the piece to be played extremely slowly – more slowly than almost any modern interpretation, according to his biographer Benjamin Ivry. The critic Emile Vuillermoz complained that Ravel's playing of the work was "unutterably slow." However, the composer was not impressed by interpretations that plodded. After a performance by Charles Oulmont, Ravel mentioned to him that the piece was called "Pavane for a dead princess", not "dead Pavane for a princess".
When asked by the composer-conductor Manoah Leide-Tedesco how he arrived at the title Pavane pour une infante défunte, Ravel smiled coyly and replied, "Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c'est tout".
When Ravel published his orchestrated version of the Pavane in 1910, he gave the lead melody to the horn, and specified a non-generic instrument: the score calls for "2 Cors simples en sol" (two hand-horns in G). The teaching of the valve-less hand-horn had persisted longer in the Paris Conservatory than in other European centers; only in 1903 had the valve horn replaced it as the official horn of primary instruction. The orchestral score was published in 1910. The premiere was given on 27 February 1911 in Manchester, England, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Reviewing the concert, the critic Samuel Langford called the work "most beautiful" and added, "The piece is hardly representative of the composer, with whom elusive harmonies woven in rapid figuration are the usual medium of expression. In the Pavane we get normal, almost archaic harmonies, subdued expression, and a somewhat remote beauty of melody."
The first recording of the Pavane was made in 1921 in Paris. A later recording, made in Paris in 1932 is sometimes thought to have been conducted by the composer, but was actually conducted by Pedro de Freitas-Branco, under the supervision of Ravel, who was present at rehearsal and the recording session.