Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2

Caroline Rae

Described by Stravinsky as ‘one of the most beautiful products in all of French music’, Daphnis et Chloé is among Ravel’s finest achievements. The work’s opulent orchestration, yearning melodies and sumptuous harmonic colouring combine with great rhythmic drive to create one of the composer’s most masterful statements. The ballet was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev during the first season of the Ballets Russes in 1909, but due to various setbacks and disagreements was not completed until 1912 when it was eventually premièred on 8 June that year at the Théâtre du Châtelet with a star-studded personnel: Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the title roles to choreography by Mikhail Fokine, designs were by Léon Bakst and Pierre Monteux conducted.

Based on Fokine’s reworking of the ancient Greek pastoral novel by the poet Longus, the ballet is set in a meadow at the edge of a sacred wood where sheep graze and nymphs frolic. The scenario tells of the love between the young shepherd Daphnis and his beautiful Chloé who is abducted by pirates but eventually rescued through the intervention of Pan, the shepherd-god of Arcadia. The story ends with the lovers’ blissful reunion.

Ravel and Fokine were not without disagreements over their approach to the scenario; while Fokine wished to recreate images of ancient dancing illustrated on Attic vases, Ravel wanted to evoke a Greece of dreams as depicted in paintings he admired by French artists of the late 18th century. Their prolonged debates, mediated by Bakst who acted as interpreter (Fokine did not speak French, nor Ravel Russian), contributed to Ravel’s delay in completing the final sections of the work. Frustrated by differences of opinion, Ravel extracted the first part of the ballet as the First Suite which was premièred, much to the annoyance of Diaghilev, by Gabriel Pierné and the Orchestre Colonne on 2 April 1911.

The Second Suite was created after the première of the complete ballet and relates to the second half of the scenario. Unbeknown to the sleeping Daphnis, Chloé has been found. In ‘Lever du jour’, a magical depiction of daybreak, shepherds wake Daphnis and the lovers are reunited as the sun rises, Chloé falling amorously into Daphnis’s arms. Among the most poetic evocations of nature, Ravel suggests the dawn chorus through rapid woodwind figurations, while a creeping chromatic bass line tentatively gropes towards D major as the first shafts of light appear. The muted sounds of dawn give way to an impassioned melodic theme in the strings, Ravel’s characteristic descending fourth symbolising yearning and desire as the lovers embrace. In the ensuing ‘Pantomime’, the pair dance in honour of Pan, recounting his love for the nymph Syrinx. Pan appears with his flute and incites Chloé to dance while he plays an enchanted but melancholic tune. This section is defined by one of the most sumptuous flute solos of the orchestral repertory, and is progressively shared by all four members of the flute section including piccolo and alto. A joyous tumult of nymphs and shepherds leads to the final celebration in a bacchanalian ‘Danse générale’ that anticipates the frenzied climactic endings of La valse and Boléro. The final section features Ravel’s notorious 5/4 rhythms about which he and Fokine had so much heated debate due to the counting difficulties for the dancers; Karsavina found the solution to the unusual five-patterning through chanting ‘Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev’ during rehearsals! 

Conceiving Daphnis et Chloé as a symphonie chorégraphique, Ravel declared the work to be ‘symphonically constructed on a very strict key scheme, using a small number of motifs whose development ensures the symphonic homogeneity of the work.’ The score reveals the influence of Stravinsky’s Firebird as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and has parallels with Debussy’s ‘Sirènes’ from the Nocturnes due to the use of a wordless chorus in the final section, yet the final result is pure Ravel.

Further Reading