skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Daphnis et Chloé

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Lynn Harrell, cello, performs Dvorak Oct. 19 - 21, 2006
© Richard Freed
Ravel began composing his score for Daphnis et Chloé in 1909 and completed it in 1912. In 1911 he extracted a brief concert suite from the portion of the work he had completed by then, and it was performed by the Colonne Orchestra under Gabriel Pierné on April 2 of that year; the very successful Suite No. 2 was produced two years later. In the meantime the premiere of the ballet was given by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 8, 1912, with choreography by Michel Fokine and décor by Léon Bakst; Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the title roles, and the conductor was Pierre Monteux. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed music from Daphniset Chloé on October 30, 1938, when Hans Kindler conducted the Suite No. 2, and performed that suite most recently on September 24, 2205, under Leonard Slatkin. Antal Doráti conducted the orchestra's first performances of the full ballet score, on January 28-30, 1975; Barry Jekowsky conducted the most recent ones, on January 23-25, 1997.

The score calls for 3 flutes and 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, wind machine, celesta, 2 harps, strings, and a wordless chorus. Duration, 55 minutes.

Daphnis et Chloé, generally regarded as Ravel's masterpiece, is one of the numerous important scores that owe their existence to the famous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who was just beginning to commission new works for his Paris-based troupe in 1909. One of the composers he signed that year was the virtually unknown 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who became an international celebrity virtually overnight with the premiere of his Firebird the following year. At the same time Diaghilev contacted Stravinsky, he invited Ravel to compose the music for Daphnis et Chloé.

Seven years older than Stravinsky and a good deal more widely known, Ravel had written little for orchestra at that time. He was eager to work with Diaghilev, but insisted on revising the scenario Michel Fokine had written for Daphnis et Chloé. He had his piano score ready in 1910, but the orchestration went slowly; the concluding Danse générale was subjected to so many revisions that Ravel said he put in a full year's work on that section alone.

During the three years in which Ravel was struggling with the orchestration of Daphnis et Chloé, Diaghilev produced not only The Firebird but also Stravinsky's second and more remarkable ballet, Petrushka, and during the same period Ravel himself orchestrated two of his own piano compositions--the suite Ma Mère l'Oye and the Valses nobles et sentimentales--for use in ballets, both of which were staged before Daphnis was. As already noted, the first of the two concert suites from Daphnis was actually performed a year before Ravel completed the later portions of the ballet score. He finally accomplished that on April 5, 1912, barely two months before the staged premiere.

The scenario for the ballet, as prepared by Fokine and subsequently revised by Ravel, was adapted from a pastoral tale ascribed to an early Greek poet named Longus: Daphnis and Chloe, both abandoned in infancy on the island of Lesbos, have been brought up by benevolent shepherd folk. They fall in love, and Daphnis teaches Chloe to play the pipes he fashions from reeds. Chloe is abducted by priates, but is rescued by the great god Pan, and restored to Daphnis amid general rejoicing. (This Greek tale was translated into both French and English in the sixteenth century; there were several subsequent translations, and a number of musical consequences, one of the earliest still surviving being a charming opera-ballet composed by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier in 1747.)

Ravel described his score as "a choreographic symphony in three parts, "in which his intention "was to compose a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous as to archaism than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which inclined readily enough to what French artists of the late eighteenth century imagined and depicted." He wrote for a sumptuously large orchestra plus a wind machine and a wordless chorus at various points. To accommodate Diaghilev, he prepared an alternative version in which the voices are replaced by instrumental doublings; but he issued a public objection to Diaghilev's presentation of the work in London without the chorus in 1914.

For many years the only portions of this score performed in concerts and recordings were the two concert suites, ,which, according to Ravel's pupil, confidant and biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel, "contain . . . the essential and best-written parts of the work." Ravel himself, however, noted in his Autobiographical Sketch (1928), that his "choreographic symphony" is so constructed that even without the stage action it makes more sense when performed in full. "The work," he wrote, "is constructed symphonically according to a strict tonal play by the method of a few motifs, the development of which achieves a symphonic homogeneity of style." Listeners familiar only with the celebrated Suite No. 2 will recognize several of the themes, or their roots, in the first part of the complete score, and will be able to follow their development easily enough through the subtle metamorphoses corresponding to scenes in the stage action.

The ballet's first part opens on a meadow near the grotto of the sacred nymphs, on a spring afternoon. Young shepherds and shepherdesses enter with offerings for the nymphs, and perform a solemn and dignified dance. The shepherdesses gather round Daphnis, and Chloe joins in their dance when she appears. Then Daphnis and his rival Dorcon perform their respective solos, and Lyceion enters and dances seductively; Daphnis at first mistakes her for Chloe and responds with confusion. At this point pirates burst in and abduct Chloe. Daphnis picks up her sandal, left behind in the struggle. As night falls, the three sacred nymphs descend from their pedestals and perform their "slow and mysterious dance." Finding Daphnis in tears, they comfort him and invoke the aid of Pan, at whose appearance (represented by the wind machine) Daphnis prostrates himself and prays for Chloe's safe return.

Part II is set in the pirates' camp at night. The pirates, bearing torches, arrive with Chloe and their plunder. They perform a savage "warlike dance." In response to a command from their chief, Bryaxis, Chloe, her hands tied, performs a dance of supplication and makes a thwarted effort to escape. Now, "suddenly the air seems laden with a strange feeling; small fires are lighted by invisible hands." Several satyrs, sent by Pan, enter the scene and surround the pirates, who are dispersed by the arrival of Pan himself as the groud opens and those able to flee do so. Chloe now is seen unfettered, wearing a luminous crown.

The music of Part III, following a brief interlude depicting Chloe alone and motionless on a barren stage, is what Ravel extracted in its entirety to form the second of his two concert suites. The setting is once again the meadow, but now in the pre-dawn darkness. At daybreak bird-songs are heard, shepherds arrive to find Daphnis and waken him. Chloe is brought to him. They embrace, and then together mime the legend of Pan and Syrinx, narrated by the old bard Lammon. Following a sacrifice of two sheep on the altar of Pan, the shepherds and shepherdesses return to celebrate the lovers' reunion. Daphnis and Chloe embrace as the wild bacchanal builds to a "joyous tumult."