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Composed: 1912

Length: c. 50 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, glockenspiel, low snare drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, and wind machine), 2 harps, celesta, strings, and chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: June 23, 1965, John Lanchbery conducting

About this Piece

The name and productions of Sergei Diaghilev had been making an imprint on Parisian – and, by extension, the world’s – musical life since the Russian impresario first appeared on the international scene in 1907, not with a ballet company but with his presentation in Paris of orchestral music by Russian composers. The next season he mounted the first production outside Russia of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, with the redoubtable Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. And in 1909, Diaghilev introduced what would be his ticket to immortality, his own dance company, the newly formed Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev had the foresight – and taste – to build for the company, which was ecstatically received by the Parisian audience, a repertory largely based on commissioned works, the first being Stravinsky’s The Firebird in 1910, followed by the same composer’s Petrushka a year later and between that masterpiece and another by Stravinsky, Le sacre du printemps (1913), Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, to mention only those works that have maintained places in the repertoire.

Ravel first mentioned Daphnis in a letter to his friend Madame de Saint-Marceaux in June of 1909: “I must tell you that I’ve had a really insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3 a.m. What particularly complicates matters is that Fokine [Michel Fokine, the choreographer, who also devised the scenario] doesn’t know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. Even with interpreters around you can imagine how chaotic our meetings are.”

The composer envisioned his work as “a vast musical fresco, in which I was less concerned with archaism than with fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies willingly with that imagined and depicted by French painters at the end of the 18th century. The work is constructed symphonically, according to a strict plan of key sequences, out of a small number of themes, the development of which ensures the work’s homogeneity.” With the latter, Ravel was referring to his use of leitmotif to identify characters and recurring moods.

As it turned out, the composer’s conception was severely at odds with Fokine’s choreography and Léon Bakst’s scenic design. There was constant wrangling among the three, delaying the work’s completion time and again. After numerous reworkings of both music and plot, the premiere finally took place on June 8, 1912, a year almost to the day after the debut of the Stravinsky-Fokine Petrushka in the same venue, the Théâtre du Châtelet, and with the same principal dancers, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. Le sacre du printemps would come a year after Daphnis et Chloé. All three epochal works were conducted by Pierre Monteux.

Fokine’s scenario, based on a pastoral by the fourth century AD Greek poet Longus, concerns the love of the shepherd Daphnis for the shepherdess Chloé, with the cowherd Dorcon as a trouble-making (rejected) third in the triangle. A band of pirates appears and Daphnis is unable to prevent their abduction of Chloé. The nymphs of Pan appear and with the help of the god the girl is rescued. The dawn breaks – its depiction being one of the score’s most celebrated moments – and the lovers are reunited. The ballet ends with their wild rejoicing.

Igor Stravinsky, who was hardly given to idle compliments – or compliments of any kind, for that matter – regarded Daphnis et Chloé as “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music.” In its soaring lyricism, its rhythmic variety, radiant evocations of nature, and kaleidoscopic orchestration – there have been many subsequent efforts at reproducing its aural effects, with even Ravel’s own falling somewhat short – it remains a unique monument of the music of the past century.

— Herbert Glass