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ClassicsOnline Home » RAVEL, M.: Daphnis et Chloe / HOVHANESS, A.: Meditation on Orpheus (Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, Schwarz)
Sergey Dyagilev commissioned Ravel to write music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé with choreography by Michel Fokine: Daphnis was danced by Nijinsky. This ‘choreographic symphony’, in Ravel’s words, is a pastoral romance that drew from the composer a succession of beguiling scenes paying tribute as much to the France of the late eighteenth century as to any Greek setting. The score is masterly, ranging from the luminous to a Bacchanale, in a musical fresco of unrivalled beauty. Alan Hovhaness’s Meditation on Orpheus evokes the mystery and charged energy of ancient Greece.
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Daphnis et Chloé
Maurice Ravel’s symphonie choréographique, Daphnis et Chloé, is based on the Greco-Roman pastoral romance by Longus, a writer of the second century A.D. The love-story is set on the island of Lesbos, where, after various misfortunes, the lovers of the title are eventually happily re-united. The idea for the ballet came from the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine and was his last work for Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes, brought to the stage of the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet in difficult circumstances. Fokine had nurtured the idea of a Greek ballet on the subject for some years, and presented his scenario to the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where he was principal dancer, in 1904. In 1909 he had joined Dyagilev in Paris as principal choreographer and now saw the opportunity for the creation of his greatest masterpiece. By 1910 Dyagilev had commissioned music for Daphnis et Chloé from Ravel, but there were delays in the composition. The scenario by Fokine was adjusted by Ravel, who, in any case, saw the story through the prism of Amyot’s sixteenth-century French translation of Longus and through a nostalgic view of the pastoral conventions of the eighteenth century. The new ballet eventually closed the Paris season in 1912, but was to some extent overshadowed by the succès de scandale occasioned by L’Après-midi d’un faune.
Daphnis et Chloé, which called for much larger resources, dancers, orchestral players and singers, had only two performances. Fokine had quarrelled with Dyagilev over his relationship with Nijinsky, and Dyagilev, in his turn, tried to have the ballet cancelled, in spite of the advertised programme. It was eventually given two, instead of the expected four performances for any new work, but was well enough received.
I. The opening scene is a meadow, near a sacred wood. There are hills in the background, and to the right a cave, at the entrance to which, cut from the same rock, stand three archaic figures of nymphs. To the left, a little further back, is a large rock that vaguely suggests the form of the god Pan. On a second level sheep graze. It is a bright spring afternoon. As the curtain rises, the stage is empty. A chord is gradually formed by the muted strings, and a flute plays a theme of yearning, accompanied by a wordless chorus off-stage. The sound of an oboe is heard, and the music increases in pace, as young men and girls appear, carrying baskets of gifts for the Nymphs. The goatherd Daphnis appears, following his flock. He is joined by Chloé and they move towards the altar, disappearing round a corner. The dance continues and Daphnis and Chloé re-appear on the first level, and bow down before the Nymphs.
II. A violin solo leads to a livelier dance. The girls draw the attention of Daphnis and dance around him, while Chloé feels the first pangs of jealousy. The cowherd Dorcon shows interest. Daphnis looks angry, before all join in the dance. As this nears an end, Dorcon tries to kiss Chloé, who innocently turns her cheek towards him, but Daphnis pushes him away.
III. Daphnis tenderly approaches Chloé. The young men intervene, standing in front of Chloé and gently pushing Daphnis away. One of them suggests a dance contest between Daphnis and Dorcon, the winner to be rewarded by a kiss from Chloé. Dorcon’s grotesque dance, with its brass accompaniment, causes amusement, and the young people imitate the cowherd’s clumsy movements. There is general laughter as Dorcon ends his dance. Daphnis answers with a graceful dance, and is unanimously declared the winner. Dorcon too comes forward, but is chased away by the laughing crowd.
IV. The laughter breaks off and Daphnis and Chloé embrace. The young people move away, taking Chloé with them. Daphnis stands motionless, as if in ecstasy. Voices are heard off-stage, receding gently into the distance. Daphnis lies flat on the grass, holding his face in his hands. Lyceion, a woman of greater experience, enters and, seeing the young goatherd, lifts his head, holding her hands in front of his eyes. Daphnis thinks that it is Chloé. He then recognises Lyceion and tries to escape. Lyceion, however, dances, dropping one of her veils, seemingly by accident. Daphnis picks it up and puts it round her. She continues her dance, which grows increasingly excited. She drops another veil, which Daphnis again picks up, before running off, mocking the young goatherd. The sound of weapons is heard amid cries of war, coming nearer. On the second level girls are seen running away, followed by pirates. Daphnis wonders about Chloé, who may be in danger, and goes out to help her. Chloé runs in, distraught, seeking to escape. She throws herself down in front of the Nymphs’ altar, begging their protection. A band of pirates bursts in, see her, and carry her off. Daphnis returns, looking for her, and sees a sandal she has dropped. Mad with despair, he curses the gods who have failed to protect her and falls fainting before the entrance to the cave.
V. The countryside is covered with a strange light. A small flame burns on the head of one of the statues. The nymph comes to life and comes down from her pedestal, followed by the second and third nymph. They play together, starting a slow, mysterious dance. They see Daphnis and, leaning over him, dry his tears. Reviving him, they lead him towards the rock and call on Pan. The figure of the god gradually appears, and Daphnis prostrates himself in supplication. All fades away.
VI. Distant voices are heard again, off-stage, as the scene changes.
VII. There is a dull light and the pirate camp is seen, set on a rocky shore. The pirates busy themselves with their plunder. Torches bring more light on the scene. The pirates dance, at first to a rough accompaniment. A quieter interlude is followed by a dance of greater excitement, after which the men fall, exhausted.
VIII. Bryaxis, their leader, orders the prisoner to be brought in. Two pirates bring Chloé in, her hands tied. Bryaxis orders her to dance. Her dance is one of supplication, accompanied by the cor anglais. She tries to escape, but is roughly brought back again. In despair she resumes her dance. Once more she tries to escape, but is brought back again, sinking into despair, as she thinks of Daphnis. Bryaxis wants her taken away, and he carries her off in triumph. Suddenly the atmosphere changes. Little flames appear, lit by invisible hands, and fantastic creatures are seen, crawling or leaping. Satyrs appear on all sides and encircle the pirates. The earth opens. The shadow of Pan is seen over the mountains in the background, menacing. The pirates all flee in fear.
IX. The scene changes to that of the opening, as night passes away. The only sound is that of the streams of dew flowing down over the rocks. Daphnis is still prostrate before the Nymphs’ cave. Little by little day dawns. Birds sing and in the distance a shepherd passes by with his flock. Another shepherd is seen in the background. A group of herdsmen appear, looking for Daphnis and Chloé. They see Daphnis and rouse him. In distress, he looks around for Chloé. At last she appears, surrounded by shepherdesses. They throw themselves into one another’s arms. Daphnis sees Chloé’s crown; his dream was prophetic; the intervention of Pan is clear.
X. The old shepherd Lammon explains that Chloé has been saved because Pan remembered the nymph Syrinx, whom he loved. Daphnis and Chloé mime the adventure of Pan and Syrinx.
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