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Composed: 1909-1912

Length: c. 18 minutes

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

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1929, Artur Rodzinski conducting

About this Piece

Ravel the perfectionist, the classical Impressionist, served only one master: musical idealism. Imagine, then, the problems inherent in a situation in which the aristocratic composer came into a cauldron seething with the outrageous temperaments of impresario Diaghilev, choreographer Fokine, scenic designer Léon Bakst, and danseur Vaslav Nijinsky. When the score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloé was completed, Diaghilev, not fully satisfied, wanted to call off the project, and only after much persuasion by Ravel’s publisher did he consent to mount the production. Rehearsals were sparring matches between Fokine and Nijinsky, the latter understandably edgy as he was at the same time involved as star and choreographer. Diaghilev was also distracted, for Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun was scheduled to premiere a mere ten days before Daphnis. Further and very importantly, concepts of the ballet’s character differed greatly among them. The story, a Greek pastoral romance attributed to the Sophist Longus, was thought to have been written in the third or fourth century A.D. Ravel saw it through Watteau-like eyes. “My intention in writing the ballet,” he said, “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 18th-century have imagined.” Diaghilev envisioned it as classical Hellenic art. And, in 1912, the dancers predictably had major difficulties with Ravel’s irregular rhythms. [Some probably do still.]

Not surprisingly, Daphnis was not a great success at its premiere in Paris on June 8, 1912, nor is it even now a real standard in the repertory. But the score remains a flawless gem of Impressionistic art and is certainly one of Ravel’s supreme achievements. Even the austere Stravinsky called Daphnis “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”

The ballet’s simple action revolves around the pastoral lovers, Daphnis and Chloé. The shepherdess Chloé is abducted by pirates, and Daphnis, distraught, falls into a sleep during which he dreams that the god Pan will come to his aid. When he awakens he finds his dream a reality – Chloé has been returned to him.

Daybreak, the first part of the Second Suite (derived from a full score that includes a wordless chorus), is a marvel of orchestral warmth and light, and the wonder of nature’s awakening. Woodwinds and harp rush quietly in endless cascades of ascending and descending notes, like the bubbling waters of a downstream forest brook; birds begin to chirp; a warm melody in the lower string stretches itself luxuriously; an effulgent orchestral burst signals the embrace of the lovers.

The Pantomime section glows with the paganism of the languorous flute solo that dominates it. At this point in the ballet, Daphnis and Chloé mime the story of Pan and Syrinx. The flute solo is Pan’s entreaty to the reluctant Syrinx. (How could she resist such eloquent pleading?)

The General Dance, even with its strong echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov, vibrates with true Ravelian splendor: deliriously exciting music for the celebration of the reuniting of Daphnis and Chloé.

—Orrin Howard