About this Recording
8.570992 - RAVEL, M.: Daphnis et Chloe / Sheherazade, Ouverture de feerie (Leipzig MDR Radio Choir, Lyon National Orchestra, Markl)
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Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Daphnis et Chloé • Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie


Born in 1875 in the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France, Maurice Ravel spent his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying the piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. In 1895 he left the Conservatoire, after failing to win the prizes necessary for promotion, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the important Prix de Rome, even when well enough established as a composer, disqualified at his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in the Conservatoire, of which Fauré became director.

Ravel’s career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the body of French song and, with commissions for ballets. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time or will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of his choreographic poem La valse, rejected by the Russian impresario Dyagilev and the cause of a rupture in their relations. He undertook a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works, in France and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.

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. about whom little otherwise is known. Described in its title as The Lesbian Pastorals of Daphnis and Chloé, 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 the pastoral conventions of the eighteenth century as imagined, with a certain nostalgia for the unattainable past, by Ravel’s contemporaries, by Verlaine, Mallarmé and others. The new ballet eventually closed the Paris season in 1912, but was to some extent overshadowed by the succès de scandale occasioned by the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune presented a few days earlier, choreographed and danced by Dyagilev’s new favourite, Nijinsky, whose erotic gestures in the last moments of the ballet gave offence to some and caused the kind of controversy that served as excellent publicity.

In the event Daphnis et Chloé, which called for much larger resources, dancers, orchestral players and singers, had only two performances. Fokine, near the end of his time with Dyagilev, had quarrelled openly with the impresario, castigating him, among other things, for his relationship with Nijinsky and its perceived consequences for the company. Dyagilev, in his turn, tried to have the ballet cancelled, in spite of the advertised programme, and then planned to alter the order of ballets, opening the theatre half an hour earlier so that Daphnis et Chloé would have been danced before an empty house. Fokine managed to prevent this, and his ballet was duly presented to the Paris public on 8 June, the second item in the programme, to be given a further performance on the last day of the season, 10 June, instead of the expected four performances of any création, to the annoyance of the composer. Daphnis was danced, for the only times in his career, by Nijinsky, and Chloé by Karsavina, with Adolph Bolm dancing Dorcon, rival of Daphnis, while the rôle of the Old Shepherd was taken by the veteran Cecchetti. Décor was by Léon Bakst and the conductor was Pierre Monteux. In spite of the factional intrigues behind the scenes, with friends of Fokine ranged against supporters of Dyagilev and Nijinsky, the work was well performed and well enough received.

[1] 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 stage gradually fills and the young people bow before the Nymphs, while the girls lay garlands on the base of the statues.

[2] Strings and harp start a religious dance, joined by the woodwind. 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. The dance is interrupted at the sight of the couple.

[3] 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. She is drawn into the dance by the young men. 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Daphnis answers with a graceful dance, and is unanimously declared the winner. Dorcon too comes forward, but is chased away by the laughing crowd. 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.

[7] 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 and 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] Distant voices are heard again, off-stage, as the scene changes.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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. Chloé represents the young nymph wandering in the meadow. Daphnis, as Pan, appears and declares his love. The nymph rejects him, but the god becomes more insistent. She disappears among the reeds. In despair, he seizes some reed stems and makes a flute, on which he plays a melancholy melody. Chloé re-appears and represents, in her dance, the sound of Pan’s flute. Her dance becomes more and more lively until she falls, exhausted, into the arms of Daphnis.

[15] Eventually before the altar of the Nymphs Daphnis swears faith, offering two sheep. A group of young girls, dressed as bacchantes, with tambourines, enters. Daphnis and Chloé embrace tenderly. Young men join them, and they dance in joy, bringing the ballet to an end.

Ravel conducted the first performance of his fairy overture Shéhérazade in May 1899 at the Paris Salle du Nouveau-Théâtre. It was not well received by critics, who condemned it as unduly influenced by Russian music and by Debussy, some suggesting that, with hard work, he might improve in time. Ravel was still a student at the Conservatoire, a pupil of Fauré, and perhaps was at fault in the factual programme note he provided. There he described the piece as in sonata form, opening with an idea in B minor, development, an episodic theme for muted trumpets, then the second idea, in F sharp, inspired by a Persian melody; the second part brought a development of the themes and the third part the return of the two ideas, heard simultaneously, with a return to the introduction in the coda. It was to this that the critic Pierre Lalo took particular exception, decrying the developments as imperceptible and the form as a series of barely related fragments.

The overture, Ravel’s first orchestral work, orchestrated with the skill he was always to show, an element that earned his later approval, was seemingly intended as part of a projected opera. The B minor Shéhérazade theme is heard at the outset from a solo oboe and the secondary F sharp major ‘Persian’ theme is later introduced by the flute, revealing, as others have noted, apparent reflections of Borodin. Whatever its perceived structural defects, with its juxtaposed blocks of sound, the overture has a certain characteristic magic, a presage of future enchantment.

Keith Anderson

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