Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

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            Ravel was the son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father, but he was quintessentially French in his elegant, stylish artistic imagination.  He is clearly in the camp of those classicists who elegantly re-interpret the genres, forms, and musical syntax of the past.   Only a cursory review of many of the titles of Ravel’s works will bear out his deep fascination and appreciation for the uses of the musical past for imaginative, original contributions to a musical future.  And yet, his music smacks nothing at all of the reactionary.   Rather, while he definitely didn’t storm the ramparts of startling change in musical style as did so many of his early twentieth-century compatriots, his music just “sounds” modern.   As did so many seminal intellects of romantic and post-romantic Europe, Ravel knew and appreciated the works of the American poet, Edgar Allen Poe—which fact may surprise most Americans these days, who have consigned Poe and his raven to the dusty closet of school-house poetry.  But, interestingly, Ravel considered Poe his “third” teacher after that of actual French musical models.  For Ravel, Poe’s stress on craftsmanship, as well as his ideas on the process of artistic conception and creation, were strongly influential.  Ravel also admired Poe’s thoughts on proportion, economy of means, beauty, and perfection. 

            While Ravel’s lifetime production was relatively small for a major composer—he consciously lamented that fact—few have so consistently created works at such a high level of artistry and craftsmanship.  In fact, almost everything that he wrote takes an honored place in the repertoire, today. And while he only produced a handful of orchestral music that was conceived originally for that medium, the frequency of performances by today’s orchestras of his orchestral works and transcriptions for orchestra are exceeded by only a handful of composers.

            The cutting edge of the ballet world for most of the early twentieth century was clearly the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev in Paris and Monte Carlo.  Under the artistic leadership of Diaghilev, this company was responsible for the creation of artistic works whose influence continues unabated today.  Diaghilev was peerless in his ability to select and recruit the crème de la crème of the European artistic community in his productions.  Just a of few of the veritable who’s who of artists include dancers, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Fokine, and Balanchine; the choreographer, Petipa; conductors, Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet; and designers, Picasso, Bakst, Braque, Coco Chanel, Matisse, Miró, and Dali. 

            Diaghilev’s first season with his company in Paris in 1909 featured traditional ballets with music by established composers such as Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin.  He thereafter continued with familiar works, but the next year also featured a big innovation:  new productions with music by the younger generation.  And we are all familiar with the first:  the Firebird by Stravinsky.   The year 1911 brought Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, and the penchant for innovation was set—the Rite of Spring was soon to come.  But in the interim, in 1909 Diaghilev had approached Ravel with the idea of music for a ballet based upon the story of Daphnis and Chloé by the third-century Greek author, Longus, in the version, much altered, that had become popular in France during the eighteenth century.   Well, Ravel set to work, but progress was slow, owing to fundamental disagreements between Ravel and the choreographer, Fokine.  But, he persevered, and the première was given in June of 1912.  It was not successful.   Debussy had scored a smash only a few days earlier with the company’s production of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and Ravel’s work did not enjoy a polished performance.  Nevertheless, it went on to take its place as Ravel’s major work for orchestra, and one of the most important works of the century.  Ravel shortly extracted two concert suites from the complete ballet.  No. 2 is the most popular one, and is simply the last part of the three parts of the ballet.

            The story of the ballet is a rather uncomplicated one.  Daphnis and Chloé are naïve young lovers on the isle of Lesbos, tending their flocks in a pastoral idyll.  Abandoned at birth, they are raised separately by a goatherd and a shepherd, respectively.   Fundamental is their confusion in their feelings of newly discovered love.  Part I of the ballet involves various sensuous dances, groups of mischievous youths and a seductress, who playfully manipulate the feelings of the principals, and ends with Chloé’s abduction by pirates, and an evocation of the awesome god, Pan.  Part II is set at the pirates’ seaside camp, where more seductive dances occur, Chloé repeatedly tries to escape, but is carried off by the evil pirate leader.  But all Hell breaks loose, as Pan, satyrs and other creepy crawlies emerge from the earth amid flames, leading all to flee in abject horror.  Part III, the object of the musical suite is next, and quite a different atmosphere it is.

            It is divided into three sections:  the break of dawn, a pantomime dance, and a bacchanal.  Morning (Lever du jour) is one of the most famous orchestral sounds in all the repertoire, even if you’ve never heard it before, you have.  For it has spawned countless imitations in the last one hundred years, but this is the original.  Cascading arpeggios in the strings and woodwinds, exotic scales, and extended harmonies over shifting pulses perfectly evoke dawn over the unimaginable beauty of the ancient Mediterranean Sea.  Little brooks murmur as the sun rises, and the sleeping Daphnis is awakened by his shepherd friends, who reunite him with Chloé.  They tell him of the intervention of Pan to save the day, motivated by his memory of his love for Syrinx.   That leads to the second section, where the two lovers dance a stylized pantomime (only in ancient Greece!), with Daphnis depicting Pan pursuing the coy nymph, Syrinx (Chloé).  She teasingly resists, he makes a flute out of rush to win her--all made clear by the virtuoso flute solo in the orchestra.   She dances herself into a mad exhaustion, falls into Daphnis’ triumphant arms, and they are married at the altar of the nymphs.   The third and final section (Danse générale) begins.  Everyone exults, and a series of wild dances by various personages celebrate the union, and a frenzied bacchanal ends it all.

            Ravel is justly celebrated as the master of orchestral color and evocative orchestration.  All of his works for orchestra are elegant testimony to that gift, and none more so than this, his masterpiece.   He uses a large orchestra, including alto flute, the small soprano clarinet, an impressive percussion section (that includes castenets, crotales, and wind machine), and a string section that is divided at times into as many as ten different parts.  In addition, a wordless off-stage chorus may be employed if desired.   It’s a very large palette of musical color, but like any great artist, Ravel uses it with discretion, creating a marvelous kaleidoscope of sound and color.  There’s nothing quite like it, a tour de force of twentieth-century French art writ large in elegance.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan