Daphnis et Chloé, Choreographic Symphony in Three Parts
(concert version arrangement by Yan Pascal Tortelier)
BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France
DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris
COMPOSED: Maurice Ravel began writing his ballet (or “Choreographic Symphony in Three Parts,” to use his term) Daphnis et Chloé in 1909 and finished the initial version of the piano score on May 1, 1910; that piano version was published the same year. He revised the score considerably in 1911, at which point he doubled the length of the Danse générale in Part Three. The orchestral score was finished on April 5, 1912, and was published in definitive form in 1913
WORLD PREMIERES: The ballet was first presented by the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, on June 8, 1912, on which occasion Pierre Monteux conducted. By that time Ravel had already extracted an orchestral suite from his ballet for concert use, and in 1913 he would follow with a second, both of which (but especially the second) are often heard today
SFS PERFORMANCES: For the full concert version of Daphnis et Chloé: FIRST—December 1947. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. These are the first SFS performances of Yan Pascal Tortelier's concert version arrangement
INSTRUMENTATION: The Daphnis et Chloé ballet score requires an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, castanets, crotales, cymbals, eoliphone (Ravel’s idiosyncratic term for a wind machine), bass drum, side drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and often divided strings. The score also calls for 4-part chorus, which Ravel allows may be replaced by instrumental alternatives he provides in the score. Yan Pascal Tortelier’s concert version arrangement of Ravel’s ballet score does not use the chorus
DURATION: About 40 mins
THE BACKSTORY When he was approached about writing a new ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, Ravel was as excited as was seemly within the bounds of his even-tempered nature. The Ballets Russes had arrived in Paris in 1909, and a commission from the company quickly became a signal that a composer had arrived at the summit of cultural life in the city that prided itself as the summit of culture. Diaghilev’s choreographer Michel Fokine had been promoting the idea of a ballet on the myth of Daphnis and Chloé, and in early 1909 he began working with Ravel to devise a suitable scenario. For their source they turned to the pastoral romance attributed to the Greek author Longus (third-century C.E.), as filtered through the late-sixteenth-century French poet Jacques Amyot. The going was not easy. In June 1909, Ravel wrote to friend, “I must tell you that I’ve just had an insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3am. What complicates things is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the savor of these meetings.”
“The next Russian season” came and went with Daphnis et Chloé still a work in progress. Ravel fell farther and farther behind schedule—so much so that at one point Diaghilev came close to canceling the whole project. Following considerable lobbying by Ravel’s publisher, Jacques Durand, the piece crept forward, and it finally made its way to the stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet about two years after Diaghilev had hoped—with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the role of Daphnis and with Tamara Karsavina as Chloé. The program fell at the very end of the company’s season and received only two performances. Although it was revived in Paris the next season and in 1914 received a production in London, Daphnis et Chloé has enjoyed only sporadic success in the world of ballet. Ravel’s score, however, has achieved the status of a classic.
The premiere left listeners and critics divided. Pierre Lalo found Ravel’s music to be lacking in rhythm; on the other hand, quite a few other reviewers commended the score particularly for its rhythmic verve. Because of the innumerable delays, adequate rehearsal time had not been forthcoming; and the fact that the premiere fell at the end of the season entailed further complications of scheduling, not to mention physical exhaustion on the part of all concerned. Fokine and Nijinsky were feuding, and the conflict grew so unpleasant that Fokine quit the company once the season was over. The dancers were befuddled by the 5/4 meter which pervades the Danse générale in the ballet’s finale: it was reported that the only way they managed to keep their five-beat measures straight was by incessantly repeating the mantra “Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev.” In an earlier version of the score, Ravel had written this music in 3/4 and 9/8 meter, but the modifications that move the section into 5/4 represent a compelling improvement in a musical—if perhaps not a choreographic—sense.
What’s more, Ravel’s rather Romantic contribution was somewhat at odds to the sensibilities of his collaborators. The sets, by Léon Bakst, ran to primitive barbarism, a spirit Ravel acknowledged only in his finale. Fokine’s choreography turned out to be so ultra-modern that viewers had trouble imagining how it could relate to Greek antiquity. “In spite of the musical splendor of the ballet,” wrote Sergei Lifar in La Revue musicale, “in spite of the dancing of the corps, extremely beautiful and certainly inspired by Fokine, sometimes ‘real creations,’ it was not an event. Perhaps … the absence of harmony between the music, the décor, and the choreography, perhaps the interpretation was too literal.”
In his “Autobiographical Sketch,” a brief document Ravel prepared in 1928, he described Daphnis et Chloé as “a great choreographic symphony . . . a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous in questions of archeology than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies quite willingly with that imagined and depicted by late eighteenth-century French artists. The work is constructed symphonically according to a strict tonal plan, by means of a small number of motifs, whose development assures the symphonic homogeneity of the work.” Leitmotifs do run through the entire score and, as the composer suggests, a tonal plan does govern this overwhelmingly A-major work, though its strictness may be obscured by the ballet’s hour-long length (making it Ravel’s longest composition) and its generally rhapsodic flavor. The composer’s acolyte Roland-Manuel once described it as a Symphony in A major, which seems a stretch, at least if we are to understand the term symphony with anything approaching a traditional definition. The Ravel biographer Norman Demuth observed: “Daphnis et Chloé is successful both in the theatre and in the concert-hall; yet it is neither bad theatre nor bad concert music. It is apt for the theatre because of its rhythms. It is apt for the concert-hall because of its themes and its orchestration—its color.”
THE MUSIC The sound of this score is indeed exceptional, even in Ravel’s colorful oeuvre. In Daphnis et Chloé he employs the largest orchestra he would ever require. Rather than merely using it as a show of force, he often spotlights solo players in a way that recalls chamber music. The “Daybreak” section, which opens Part Three, provides a fine example of his mastery as an orchestrator. Harps, flutes, and clarinets flutter quietly over the hushed background of the muted strings, which are divided into ten parts. In the opening two measures, however, the string section gradually grows to full strength by observing Ravel’s extraordinary direction, “Remove the mutes one by one beginning with the first stands.” This imaginative alteration of timbre, combined with a theme rising out of the depths of the orchestra, creates one of the most evocative sunrises ever committed to musical staves.
Fokine’s ballet scenario is divided into three parts, though the action is dovetailed into a single sweep in the staged ballet and, accordingly, in Ravel’s score. Inscriptions within the score detail the plot. Daphnis (male) and Chloé (female) are innocent characters in an ancient, pastoral setting. On a spring day, shepherds worship at the altar of the nymphs, and shepherdesses dance enticingly around Daphnis, arousing Chloé’s jealousy. She, in turn, is approached suggestively by a cowherd. Nonetheless, the attraction between Daphnis and Chloé remains intact—but suddenly Chloé is abducted by pirates. Part One ends with the god Pan being summoned to help retrieve her. Part Two of the ballet shifts to the lair of the pirates—but they scatter when Pan arrives leading an army of fauns. After the “Daybreak” section described above, Chloé awakens to find herself transported to be reunited with Daphnis in Pan’s grotto. They thank him by dancing a re-enactment of Pan’s love for Syrinx. After they swear eternal fidelity, everybody joins in with a Danse générale that escalates into a bacchanal.
—James M. Keller
Portions of this note previously appeared in different form in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and are used by permission.
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Ulster Orchestra, Renaissance Singers, and Belfast Philharmonic Society Chorus (Chandos) | Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS) | Lorin Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca, currently available on ArkivCD) | For a historically-informed approach, François-Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles and Ensemble Aedes (Harmonia Mundi)
Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover) | A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press) | Maurice Ravel, by Roland-Manuel (Dover) | Ravel Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Norton) | The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)
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