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Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays Connesson & Ravel Apr. 29 - May 1, 2010
© Thomas May
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Maurice Ravel

Daphnis and Chloé, the longest of Ravel's compositions, began as a commission for Sergei Diaghilev's newly emerging Ballets Russes. The ever-meticulous Ravel worked on his score between 1909 and 1912. Company choreographer Michel Fokine adapted the ballet's scenario from a novel-like romance of antiquity attributed to the Greek writer Longus. Daphnis and Chloé traces the vicissitudes of love between the innocent title characters, foundlings who are raised by shepherds in an aptly pastoral setting. They undergo a number of adventures—including kidnapping by pirates and intervention by the god Pan—before they are happily united again.

The full-length ballet, which Ravel famously characterized as a "choreographic symphony" economically constructed from a small set of themes, lasts nearly an hour and calls for an enormous orchestral palette, including a wide array of percussion, along with a wordless chorus. Ravel, who was unhappy with the clashing visions of his collaborators at the Ballets Russes, extracted two purely instrumental suites for concert performance. The second, which has become the more popular, presents three numbers taken from the ballet's final scene, when the lovers are reunited.

Ravel said his idea was to compose "a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with faithfulness to the Greece of my dreams, which is similar to that imagined and painted by French artists at the end of the eighteenth century." His shimmering orchestration is at its most imaginative in the "Daybreak" sequence, as the sleeping Daphnis awakens to be reunited with Chloé. In a celebrated special effect in the opening sequence using divided strings, Ravel instructs the players to remove their mutes, one by one, while woodwinds play birdcalls—the whole resulting in a stunningly beautiful impression of the sun's emerging shafts of light. Now awakened, Daphnis and Chloé embrace and then dance a symbolic pantomime of thanksgiving in homage to Pan, Chloé's rescuer. They reenact the passion entertained by the shepherd god for the nymph Syrinx, who flees from him but then dances to his entrancing flute. Notice how many colors Ravel derives from his delicately etched manipulation of the winds (the flute representing Pan as suitor). The concluding section contrasts the "joyous tumult" of the full ensemble with the gentler iridescence preceding it. The lovers begin a more-animated dance, while the country folk join in for a "general dance." Ravel's pulsing 5/4 rhythm—which proved tricky for the original dancers—accentuates the bacchanalian rites of this springtime of love.