Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

‘’Tis a common proof’, says Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder.’ Today, now that the music of Daphnis et Chloé is known worldwide, we tend to forget that, when work first started on the ballet, in 1909, its three creators were all still in their thirties. And if none of them was exactly lowly, they all had things to prove.

Serge Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) made his name in Russia first as an expert on painting. But, as would happen later in Paris, his intransigent nature made him enemies, and in 1905 he began to think about organising an exhibition of Russian paintings in the West. From the exhibition he mounted in Paris in 1906 came the idea of five concerts of Russian music, which took place in May 1907. Following that, an opera season seemed a natural choice for 1908: Chaliapin as Boris Godunov was a phenomenal success and pointed the way along a glittering path that Diaghilev was not the man to ignore. So, in 1909, he brought Russian ballet to Paris, presenting a repertoire of eight works including Le Pavillon d’Armide, Les Sylphides, and the dances from Prince Igor. But from early days he seems to have dreamt of commissioning French composers, whether out of disinterested generosity or because he foresaw that Parisian funding for his enterprises was likely to be more stable if the music was home-grown. Daphnis et Chloé, given its première at the Théâtre du Châtelet, on 8 June 1912, was the first major work (one must, alas, ignore Reynaldo Hahn’s Le Dieu bleu) to fulfil that dream.

For the dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine (1880 – 1942), Daphnis was no less of an opportunity to put flesh and blood on an idea. In his memoirs he recalls reading a Russian translation of the story of Daphnis and Chloë by the late-second-century Greek writer Longus and how it sparked off his first libretto. This was in 1904, and the twenty-four-year-old Fokine, then a pupil at the St Petersburg ballet school, promptly sent the libretto off to the Director of the Imperial Theatre. Not surprisingly, there was no reply. But, if we are to believe Fokine, Daphnis embodied his views on a new kind of ballet in which

the dance pantomime and gestures should not be of the conventional style established in the old ballet ‘once and for all’, but should be of a kind that best fits the style of the period. The costumes also should not be of the established ballet style (short tarlatan tutus) but be consistent with the plot... The ballet must be uninterrupted – a complete artistic creation and not a series of separate numbers... The music should not consist of waltzes, polkas, and final gallops – indispensable in the old ballet – but must express the story of the ballet and, primarily, its emotional content.

Where these principles came from is not clear, though they may have been influenced by the Wagnerian ideal of a ‘total work of art’, in which music, action, scenery, and lighting were all integrated to a single end. But it is easy to see that the very fact of Fokine’s ideas being different, and hence striking, was enough to commend them to a Diaghilev anxious to impress the Parisian artistic world.

It remained to find a composer. Reynaldo Hahn aside (we are all allowed to make mistakes), Diaghilev’s two other targets were absolutely on the nail. Debussy, eternally hard up, was tempted by a project provisionally entitled Masques et bergamasques, but as far as we know this never progressed beyond four autograph pages of scenario; he finally came up with Jeux, produced by Diaghilev in 1913. Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), however, had good reasons in 1909 to give Diaghilev’s commission of Daphnis his best shot. In January that year, his pianist friend Ricardo Viñes had given the first performance of his suite Gaspard de la nuit (1908). This work may now reasonably be seen as, among other things, an attempt by Ravel to escape his reputation as a miniaturist and as a pale imitator of Debussy. The trouble was that, even though he did not like Viñes’s interpretation of the work, no one else could play it! Meanwhile his opera L’Heure espagnole (1907 – 09) could find no place at the Opéra-Comique because the story was thought to be too risqué‚ even for Paris. A ballet for Diaghilev, with the promise of as many performers as he needed, was just the opportunity that Ravel was looking for.

It would be pleasant to record that this meeting of three minds was smooth and harmonious. Unfortunately, each of these ambitious young men brought his own ladder with him and for the most part showed little inclination to climb anyone else’s. Things began reasonably well, but essentially Ravel and Fokine, even if they agreed that the ballet should present a unified whole (Ravel called his score a ‘choreographic symphony’), saw the story from quite different points of view. Fokine claimed that he

planned to make an elaborate dramatic sequence out of the attack of the pirates. I felt that the slaying of the shepherds, the abduction of the women, the plunder of the cattle, would all contribute to the unfolding of interesting action. Ravel, however, wanted to produce a lightning attack... I was unable to inspire him to create musically that violent, gruesome picture which was so vivid in my imagination.

One cannot help being amused at the thought of Ravel, that most gentle and civilised of men, being encouraged to set the stage of the Châtelet swimming in gore.

But this was far from being the only point of disagreement. Fokine’s ideal for the dancers was, according to Serge Lifar,

to recapture, and dynamically express, the form and image of the ancient dancing depicted in red and black on Attic vases.

Ravel’s aim, in his own words, was to create 

a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which is close to that imagined and painted by the French artists of the late eighteenth century.

And anybody who trod on Ravel’s dreams did so at their peril.

By May 1910, Ravel had finished a first version of the whole ballet. The autograph of this version survives, but his publisher did not proceed with the planned edition because Ravel realised (whether prompted by Fokine or not) that his finale was too short to carry nearly an hour’s uninterrupted music. For some eighteen months he was blocked and the production was postponed. In desperation he eventually put the score of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade on the piano rest and (as we can hear) used that to lever himself back into the swing. Meanwhile, Diaghilev and Fokine were busy falling out. After the first Daphnis rehearsals, with piano, Diaghilev went to Ravel’s publisher, Jacques Durand, wanting to cancel the whole project; he finally went ahead only because Durand assured him that Ravel’s orchestration would bring the music to life.

Daphnis, with realistically Greek décor by Léon Bakst (1866 – 1924) inspired by his recent travels in that country, was given a mere two performances right at the end of the 1912 season, much to Ravel’s fury. Press reaction was muted, where not actually hostile. Ravel did admit that the ballet was a little on the long side, but after all the work he had put into it he could not reconcile himself to Diaghilev’s dismissive attitude. And when Fokine, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and the conductor, Pierre Monteux, appeared in front of the curtain to acknowledge the applause, Ravel did not join them. Diaghilev did see his way to putting on Daphnis three times in 1913, again at the very end of the season, but never again in Paris after that.

After considerable argument, a three-part scenario was agreed as follows. On a spring afternoon on the island of Lesbos a group of girls and youths assembles, bringing gifts to the nymphs whose statues we see on the verge of the wood behind them. Daphnis, a shepherd, and Dorcon, a cowherd, dance for the privilege of a kiss from Chloé (Dorcon’s music, being a rare example of deliberate uncouthness in Ravel’s output, is duly met with an outbreak of wonderfully realistic orchestral laughter). Daphnis, not surprisingly, wins the contest and her kiss leaves him in ecstasy. A girl called Lyceion now enters, tries to seduce him, and, although she fails, leaves him confused. Suddenly a band of pirates attacks the island and kidnaps Chloé. Daphnis, who has gone to find her, discovers one of her sandals and in despair curses the powers who have failed to protect her. He falls to the ground unconscious, and the nymphs come down from their pedestals and dance.

They revive Daphnis and lead him to a huge rock which changes into the image of the god Pan, before whom Daphnis prostrates himself. From the distance comes the sound of an unaccompanied choir, as total darkness descends and the scene changes to the camp where the pirates are celebrating their successful raid. The pirate chief compels Chloé to dance for him. Her attempts to escape are forlorn, and eventually he carries her off. But mysterious sounds and apparitions interrupt the festivities, culminating in the terrifying appearance of Pan (low brass and string glissandos), at which all the pirates run for their lives. The final scene begins with the famous dawn music – Ravel at his magical best, ushering it in with a couple of his favourite descending fourths (when a friend jokingly wondered how this could have been written by someone who never got up before 11am, Ravel replied, reasonably enough, that he used his imagination). The shepherds, who have found Chloé with the help of Pan, wake Daphnis; the pair are reunited and, after they have danced together, a ‘joyeux tumulte’ leads to the final ‘Danse générale’, in which a battle between bars of 3 / 4 and 5 / 4 is finally resolved by twelve of 2 / 4.


© 2023 Roger Nichols

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