Length: c. 15 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
Daphnis and Chloé was the French composer’s single work for Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, but it encountered as much trouble as two or three might have. When the score 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 choreographer Michel Fokine and danseur Vaslav Nijinsky, the latter understandably edgy as he was at the same time involved as star and choreographer, also for Diaghilev, of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, premiered a mere ten days before Daphnis. Further, concepts of the ballet’s Greek origins differed greatly: Ravel saw it through the eyes of the 18th-century French painters; Diaghilev envisioned it as classical Hellenic art. And the dancers predictably had difficulties with the irregular rhythms.
Not surprisingly, Daphnis was not a great success at its premiere in Paris on June 8, 1912, nor has it been in subsequent productions. But the score remains a flawless gem of Impressionistic art and is probably Ravel’s supreme achievement. (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 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 score that includes a wordless chorus), is a marvel of orchestral tone painting, bursting with 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 strings stretches itself luxuriously; an effulgent orchestral burst signals the embrace of the lovers as they are reunited.
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