MAURICE RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned the ballet Daphnis et Chloé in 1909; the piano score was published in 1910. Ravel completed the full score in 1911, though there was some recasting of the Bacchanale after a private hearing, so that the present form of the work was not ready until April 5, 1912. Pierre Monteux conducted the first staged performance at a production by Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 8, 1912. The score calls for three flutes, alto flute, and piccolo; two oboes and English horn; two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet; three bassoons and contrabassoon; four horns; four trumpets; three trombones; tuba; timpani; snare drums, cymbals, antique cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, castanets, glockenspiel, and wind machine; celeste; two harps; and strings.

Daphnis et Chloé has some elements of typical Greek romances, namely a potential love relation that is thwarted by some obstacle; but the emphasis is elsewhere, on a psychological description of the passion that grows between Daphnis and Chloé, two foundlings raised by shepherds on the island of Lesbos, from the first naive and confused feelings of childhood to full sexual maturity. So powerful is Longus’s psychological analysis—and his description of the sex act—that the book has been regarded as pornographic throughout much of literary history. These circumstances, maintains Margaret Drabble, have kept Daphnis et Chloé from receiving the critical attention that its “charm and genuine artistry” would normally have won for it.

The idea for the ballet was thrust upon Ravel by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, whose chief choreographer, Michel Fokine, had wanted to do a Greek ballet for several years. His dream finally reached fruition in France. Ravel was commissioned to write Daphnis et Chloé in 1909, but he was dissatisfied with Fokine’s scenario, and the collaboration was complicated by mutual unfamiliarity with one another’s language. As Ravel wrote to a friend: “Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and all I know of Russian is how to swear. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the savor of these meetings.”

Once the score was finished in 1911, the problem was to mount the work on the stage. Diaghilev wished to extend the run of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, choreographed by his lover, Vaslav Nijinsky, who had had a sensational success with his dancing, which was regarded as scandalously erotic. Diaghilev wanted to cancel Daphnis entirely, and Ravel was caught in the midst of a bitter power struggle between impresario and choreographer. Even after Daphnis et Chloé proved to be his largest and finest orchestral work, Ravel was soured on the company and not interested in doing that kind of work again.

Ravel drew two suites out of the score, essentially representing the two parts of the story. The second is most often performed by itself, surely because of its spectacular ending. In the theater, Ravel’s music unfailingly supports the scenario with colorful and rhythmic invention; in the concert hall its harmonic and thematic structure make it memorable even when heard without the visual images of the stage. At the same time, Ravel’s fabulous orchestration supports, intensifies, and enlivens the music in either venue.

During the first part, the nymph Chloé is seized by pirates and carried far from her lover Daphnis, who prays to the god Pan for assistance. In the pirates’ camp, Pan (who spreads panic—the very word comes from his name—among humans) uses his power to terrify the pirates, allowing Chloé to be rescued.

The Second Suite opens with one of Ravel’s most brilliantly achieved strokes, music depicting the unmistakable arrival of dawn in the grotto where Daphnis sleeps. Birds sing, the waterfall splashes, and the sun increasingly penetrates the mists. Shepherds arrive looking for Daphnis and Chloé; they find Daphnis and awaken him. He looks around for Chloé, and sees her arriving at last. They throw themselves into one another’s arms, sounded by a climactic statement of the theme of their love, labeled “very expressive,” and played by the full orchestra. Daphnis notices that Chloé’s head is illumined by a mysterious glow, which Daphnis recognizes as the sign of Pan’s intervention.

The old shepherd Lammon explains to them that if Pan did indeed help them, it was in remembrance of his lost love for Syrinx. Daphnis and Chloé mime the story of Pan and Syrinx: Pan expresses his love for the nymph Syrinx, who, frightened, disappears in the reeds. In despair, Pan forms a flute out of a reed and plays upon it to commemorate his love. During the ravishing flute solo, Chloé reappears and echoes, in her movements, the music of the flute. The dance becomes more and more animated. At its climax, Chloé throws herself into Daphnis’s arms, and they solemnly exchange vows before the altar. A group of young girls dressed as bacchantes enter with tambourines. Now the celebration can begin in earnest, in the extended Danse générale, one of the most brilliant and exciting orchestral passages ever written. —© Steven Ledbetter