The Kennedy Center

Daphnis et Chloé Complete Ballet

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Thomas May

In 1898, when Fauré composed his music for Pelléas et Mélisande, a young student enrolled in his composition class at the Paris Conservatory: Maurice Ravel. Unlike his teacher, who showed little interest in the art of orchestration, Ravel would develop into one of the supreme exemplars of orchestral mastery of all time. But the meticulous, slow-working Ravel had published precious little for orchestra by the time he undertook what would become the single largest composition of his entire oeuvre: the complete ballet score for Daphnis et Chloé.

The impetus for this project came from the great impresario, director, and stage wizard Serge Diaghilev. His adventuresome company of Russian expatriates, the Ballets Russes, would become a sensation in Paris, where a craze for all things Russian held sway (enhanced by the BR's hit production of the second act from Borodin's Prince Igor in 1909). The always-planning Diaghilev decided to embark on a series of innovative new commissions for upcoming seasons that would also include music by the leading French composers of the period.

The young Igor Stravinsky also benefited from Diaghilev's experiments and was given a stage for his pioneering early ballets, becoming an overnight celebrity with the success of The Firebird in 1910. (The company's groundbreaking premiere of The Rite of Spring came Just a year after Daphnis et Chloé was staged for the first time.) Ravel composed Daphnis et Chloé between 1909 and 1910 and completed his orchestration the following year but continued to refine the final scene until 1912. Already in April 1911, more than a year before the ballet's premiere, he introduced the first of two concert suites he would extract from the full-length score - the format in which this music is usually encountered by concert audiences.

The source for Daphnis et Chloé is a romance from late antiquity attributed to the second-century Greek writer Longus (and regarded as a progenitor of the novel). Here's a brief synopsis of the narrative used for Ravel's ballet, as adapted from Longus by the choreographer and Ballets Russes associate Mikhail Fokine (also the choreographer for The Fire Bird): Companions since childhood, Daphnis and Chloé are archetypal innocents, foundlings who have been raised in the peaceful pastoral landscape that serves as the ballet's backdrop. Part One establishes the setting as taking place in pagan antiquity. On a spring afternoon, young men and women pause from tending their sheep to worship before an altar representing three nymphs. Shepherdesses dance around Daphnis, causing his beloved to feel jealousy. She then naively responds to the lustful advances of the clumsy cowherd Dorcon. When Dorcon engages in a dance contest with Daphnis, he loses and is then ridiculed by the group.

Taking leave of his beloved Chloé, Daphnis is left alone to muse to himself but then watches the seductive dance of another shepherdess, Lyceion. At this point pirates steal on the scene. Daphnis rushes to protect Chloé but is too late and sees the sandal she has left behind - evidence that Chloé has been abducted by the pirates. Despairing, Daphnis is comforted by nymphs, who summon Pan, the god of the wild and protector of shepherds.

Part Two takes us to the pirates' camp on the seacoast. After they engage in warlike dance, their chief orders Chloé also to dance. Pan then intervenes, sending an army of satyrs, and the pirates flee in terror. In a remarkable transition scene, Part Three starts with a dazzling depiction of dawn. Daphnis wakes up before Pan's grotto and is joyously reunited with Chloé. As the couple dance, their symbolic pantomime reenacts the story of Pan's love for the nymph Syrinx. The dance turns increasingly passionate, and the surrounding crowd eventually joins in to participate in a communal dance that ends the ballet in "joyful commotion."

Ultimately celebrating the triumph of love between Daphnis and Chloé, the ballet tells this story through a melange of atmospheric scenes, set pieces that etch out particular characters, and action sequences. Ravel remarked that 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." He also referred to the score as a "choreographic symphony," using a vast orchestra to invent some of the most thrilling passages of color and sonic nuance in the repertoire.

The scale of the complete ballet surpasses that of any other of Ravel's compositions. This is music that was clearly conceived as part of a deftly integrated totality incorporating choreography (also Fokine), sets (Léon Bakst), and the unique dance style of Vaslav Nijinsky (who created the role of Daphnis, with Tamara Karsavina doing the same for Chloé). Ravel painted his "fresco" with the subtlest mixture of timbres and harmonies from his extended orchestral apparatus, even calling on a wordless chorus. (The latter caused a major rift between the composer and Diaghilev when Ravel learned that for the London tour the impresario tried to cut expenses by excising the chorus.)

Its deft, economic construction from a small group of motifs and harmonic ideas stands as a counterpart to the score's dazzling spectrum of colors and sonorities.

Part One, the longest, opens with gently rocking harmonies, the chorus adding color, and gives the main motivic ideas of the piece. Ravel's fluid rhythms for the flute are associated with the sphere of  the nymphs and Pan, while a solo horn plays the couple's love theme. Pagan worship is one of the diverse species of love and desire depicted in Daphnis et Chloé. In the contrasting sequence of ensuing dances, the grotesque movements of the would-be suitor Dorcon given a comic edge; Ravel even depicts the onlookers' mocking laughter. The graceful dance of Daphnis is given a lilting momentum. Ravel's conveys the ecstasy of his love through his shimmering orchestration, contrasting this with the eroticism of Lyceion's dance. A moody nocturne follows Chloé's abduction, in which Ravel introduces "exotic" sonorities (and an unmissable wind machine) to signal the numinous entrance of Pan and the nymphs onto the scene.

Segueing into Part Two is an unaccompanied chorus. Now we hear the aggressively menacing music associated with the pirates. Chloé's vulnerability is evoked by an English horn as she is forced to dance in supplication. The pirates flee in fear as the awe-inspiring music of the supernatural takes over of the soundscape. The most-celebrated tour de force of Ravel's orchestration comes in his scenic depiction of "Daybreak" in the sequence opening Part Three. The string players, subdivided into many groups, are asked to remove their mutes one by one while the woodwinds imitate a menagerie of bird calls. The chorus contributes to the impression of sunbeams surely casting away all darkness and fear.

This is the moment when Daphnis and Chloé actually dance together for the first time. What they dance, however, is a "performance": a pantomime in homage to the god Pan (the flute represents Pan - "played" by Daphnis - in his role as a passionate suitor trying to win Syrinx, the nymph he loves. The love music given a rapturous development but then leads suddenly into the concluding dance, which is nothing less than an orgy. Accordingly, Ravel writes a feverish, thrilling scene of complex rhythms and sexualized, pulsating currents. (In practice, it all turned out to be fiendishly tricky even for the seasoned Ballets Russes.) Daphnis et Chloé gathers bout after bout of impossible new energy, coming to end with this scene of bacchanalian splendor.