The name and productions of Serge 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, followed the next season by the first production outside Russia of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, with the redoubtable Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. In 1909, Diaghilev brought to Paris his newly-formed Ballets Russes, which proved such a success artistically that he began to commission original works for the company, the first being The Firebird from Stravinsky in 1910, followed by the same composer’s Petrushka in 1911, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe in 1912 and, again from Stravinsky, Le sacre du printemps in 1913: an incredible run of musical hits by any standard.
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 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.”
Ravel envisioned his work as “a vast musical fresco, less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies willingly with that imagined and depicted by late-18th-century French painters....”
As it turned out, Ravel’s conception was at odds with Fokine’s choreography and Léon Bakst’s projected scenic design. There was constant wrangling among the three, delaying the work’s completion time and again. The premiere finally took place on June 8, 1912, a year almost to the day after the premiere of the Stravinsky-Fokine Petrushka (which, like Daphnis, had Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina as principal dancers) and a year before Le sacre. All three were conducted by Pierre Monteux.
Daphnis and Chloe did not succeed as a ballet on this occasion and, arguably, it never has. But its lushly colorful music made an immediate, largely favorable impression. It has become a symphonic repertory staple, most notably as the second of the two suites the composer drew from the 50-minute-long score.
The Second Suite opens with a spectacularly-orchestrated depiction of the sun rising over a pastoral landscape, its theme built round a simple ascending sequence derived from the horn solo at the start of the ballet. The composer describes the action of the present suite as follows (the numbers in brackets refer to the three individual movements):
“[I] No sound but the murmur of rivulets of dew trickling from the rocks. Daphnis lies still before the grotto of the nymphs. Little by little, day breaks. Bird songs are heard. Herdsmen arrive searching for Daphnis and Chloe. They find Daphnis and awaken him. In anguish, he looks around for Chloe, who at last appears surrounded by shepherdesses... Daphnis and Chloe mime the story of the nymph Syrinx who was beloved of the god Pan. Chloe impersonates the young nymph wandering in the meadow. Daphnis appears as Pan and declares his love. The nymph repulses him. He grows more insistent. She disappears among the reeds. [II] In despair he plucks some reeds and shapes them into a flute and plays a melancholy tune. Chloe returns and dances to the melody of the flute. [III] The dance grows more and more animated and, in a mad whirl, Chloe falls into Daphnis’ arms... A group of young girls, dressed as bacchantes, enters... A group of young men invade the stage. Joyous tumult. General Dance.”
— Herbert Glass