MUS 140 FINAL ESSAY – RAVEL’S DAPHNIS ET CHLOE (1909 – 1912)
Hae-Jean Byun, ID: 272105342
Choose one of the following pieces of music and write an essay addressing this question: How does this piece reflect the sociocultural conditions that surrounded its composition and first performances? Support your answers with primary and secondary sources.
Thesis statement: The work ‘Daphnis et Chloe’ accurately reflects the sociocultural conditions that surrounded its composition and first performances.
Joseph Maurice Ravel was a French composer who wrote a vast number of well-known works in his lifetime. One of his most successful of these is the two-part ballet Daphnis et Chloe, composed from 1909 to 1912, and described as a “symphonie choregraphique”. Based on Longus’s Greek novel “Daphnis et Chloe”, which focuses on the love between two characters in a Greek setting, this work reflects the sociocultural conditions of the time. These include the symbols of the Greek legend and the mythology that the novel was based on, as well as the collaboration between Diaghilev, Fokine and Baskt as a commissioned work premiered in Paris 1912.
Point #1: The Greek legend and mythology surrounding Daphnis et Chloe
The Greek legend and the mythology behind Daphnis et Chloe is reflected within it. (Ronald – Manuel, 1928) describes Ravel’s intention as to “compose a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with faithfulness to the Greece of my dreams.” This idea of archaism unravels the perspectives of Ravel and Michel Fokine (choreographer) who wanted the ballet to resemble the “text of the third-century-CE Greek novel by Longus”, as well as the “authentic rhythms from Ancient Greece.” (Mawer, 1967) This is contrasted with the image of Greece in Ravel’s dream, which mirrors the “memory and imagination in Daphnis, even the prioritizing of imagination over memory.” The composer steered away from the archaism of eighteenth century French paintings, instead focusing on elements of the Greek Legend and its mythology. These elements come alive in “the Greece of his dreams” (M. Hayes, 1967), mirroring the paintings of the “imagined and painted by French artists at the end of the eighteenth century.” (M. Hayes, 1967) Although Ravel loved this idea, this concept was viewed as a “source of myth and mystery themselves” (Mawer, 1967) due to the ballet history of Daphnis during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Additionally, critic Lynn Garafola explains that “…Daphnis explores correspondences between the real world and dream-like imagination between the mortal coil and immortal world of the gods.”
The image of the Greek Legend and the mythology is reflected in the first 7 bars of the introduction of Daphnis et Chloe, where perfect fifths are stacked together. (Mawer, 1967) describes these fifths as being “invested with antique association, a non-specific symbol of the past”, and creating an “ultimate locus as an awe-inspiring spacious primordium.” The most iconic motif in this introduction is the horn solo of the Daphnis et Chloe leitmotif. Ravel also experiments with the notes in the fifth chord, inverting the pivot and rotating the notes G, C, G and D. The purpose of this inverted pivot is to connect with the “physical motion in space, a half-revolution pivoting on one foot”, and the fifths create the atmosphere of the “Grecian meadow and sacred grove.” (J. Puris, 2010) Also, the low notes of the fifth “C, G” mimics Daphnis, in contrast with the high notes “G, D”, mimicking Chloe. (Mawer, 1967) This introduction was a “musical time warp’ fusing the past with the present,” (J. Puris, 2010) and the way Ravel mixed the “ancient fresco and painting of the second classical period, evokes a Greece rather differently.” (Mawer, 1967)
Point #2: The commission and composition of Daphnis et Chloe
The collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev (impresario and linchpin), Michel Fokine (choreographer) and Leon Bakst (designer) in 1909 was the conception of Daphnis et Chloe. At the beginning of the collaboration, they worked well together, with each person contributing their ideas and opinions based on their experiences in the past. However as time passed, Diaghilev started to become impatient with Ravel, as the composer was occupied with theatre work, conducting and writing ballet music, as well as being assigned to write two S.I.M magazines articles during 1912. In addition to the tension between Ravel and Diaghilev, the composer became involved in a quarrel with Fokine due to their differing interpretations of the work. (Nichols, 1977) described Ravel having a Greek perspective of the project, contrasting with Fokine’s, which was “to recapture, and dynamically express, the form and image of the ancient dancing depicted in red and black on Attic vases.” Additionally, Ravel wanted to work by himself, not in a “third share (after impresario and designer); ‘we have spent (I say we, for I’ve worked at it too) a number of the small hours in writing the scenario” (Nichols, 1977). Another factor of the quarrel was the language barrier between Fokine (Russian) and Ravel (French), which caused a lot of conflict when working together on the plot of the ballet.
This ballet is in a “strict key scheme, using a small number of motifs.” The work begins in a 5/4 irregular time signature, followed by a ¾ then a 2/4 in the movement “Danse generale”. An argument was sparked between Ravel and Fokine due to this irregular consistency of time signatures, as Fokine believed that the “creative originality will be rubbed out… leading to a product that is weak, dull, compromised and ineffectual” (Mawer, 1967). The short fast tempo and the use of 5/4 time signature made Fokine infuriated as it was difficult for him to choreograph a dance for the ballet dancers. This work was originally composed for piano in May 1910, however, Ravel disliked the ending of the work and spent two additional years rewriting it. The new ending was “immeasurably more dangerous”, as the irregular 5/4 time signature with an “arrangement of 3 + 2, amid disorienting chromaticism.” (Mawer, 1967). The use of chromaticism heightens the “excitement or instability and is used to warn the title roles of potential sexual threat” for instance, the “Daphnis in Lycerion’s dance”. During this period, Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu became very popular, however, it “took insufficient risk and would have approximated to conventional responses that Fokine also wanted to avoid,” because the ballet “was quite short and in regular triple metre.” (Mawer, 1967).
Point #3: The first performances and reception of Daphnis et Chloe
The immense amount of work involved with so many collaborators resulted in heightened arguments between the artists, and delayed the two Paris premieres of Daphnis et Chloe in 1912. The first premiere was held at the Theatre du Chatelet, and was conducted by Pierre Monteux, utilising the ballet dancers from the Ballet Russes, the impresario and linchpin Diaghilev, Fokine, designer Bakst, and title-role dancers Nijinsky and Karsavina. The reviews were largely positive with critic Robert Crussel declaring “that it was the most accomplished and most poetic work” produced by Diaghilev. In addition to this praise, critic Emilie Vuillermoz favoured the “firm design, surprising dynamic force and irresistable elan”. She believed that Ravel had outdone himself and was now “completely a master of his art.” In contrast, critics Pierre Lalo and Gaston Carraud believed that Ravel’s work was “lacking in rhythm” (Myers, R.H, 1971), but the audience was astounded by the transformation of the characters in the work.
Concurrently, the Fonteyn myth, based on Margot Fonteyn, who portrayed Chloe in the first premiere, made the work successful, because although her technique was not sublime nor flawless, she exceeded great strengths in her dancing. (Mawer, 2010) describes her style as having “artistic expressivity including arm gestures, musical sensitivity, acting skills, stage presence and ability to communicate with her audience.” Some people believed that Daphnis et Chloe was perfect without. the dancing, while some thought that the dancing added a special touch to the music and believed that it was important. However, the portrayal of Chloe was truly “breathtaking”, and it “remains one of the unforgettable art images of a generation” (Larner, G., 1996).
The scholar Michael J. Puris describes Daphnis et Chloe as “Ravel presenting us with just such a ‘sweet’ scene to vibrate in our memories”. It took Ravel three years to compose the “symphonie choregraphique”, creating a masterpiece that allows the audience to engage with the fragment of Daphnis and Chloe’s love. This idea of connecting the idea of the work to the symbols of Greek legend and mythology that Longus depicts in his novel, as well as the collaboration between Diaghilev, Fokine and Baskt, shaped the work to be the influential composition that it is today.
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Mawer, D. (2006). The Ballets of Maurice Ravel Creation and Interpretation. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.
Edited by Mawer, D. (2010). Ravel studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Collation of scholars.
Larner, G. (1996). Maurice Ravel . London.
Priest, D. (1999). Louis Laloy (1874 – 1944) on Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Goddard, S. (2004). Maurice Ravel: Some Notes on His Orchestral Method. Oxford University Press.
Ravel, Maurice, Daphnis et Chloe, ‘Danse Generale’, 1910
Ravel, Maurice, Daphnis et Chloe, ‘Introduction’ (bars 1-7), 1913.