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About this Piece

Composed: 1909-1912
Length: 56 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, glockenspiel, low snare drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, and wind machine), 2 harps, celesta, strings, and chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: June 23, 1965, John Lanchbery conducting

We cannot consider the evolution and role of time - or the theme of desire - in 20th-century music without visiting Daphnis and Chloe. Conventions of rhythmic organization were becoming increasingly disregarded by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most radical and obvious early innovation being the distortion or outright avoidance of a clear beat. The opening of Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe is a perfect example.

In 1909 Ravel accepted a commission from the Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev to produce a score for one of their new ballets - a new take on an ancient Greek tale that had been popular in France since the Renaissance. Ravel described his score as "a choreographic symphony in three parts," in which his "intention was to compose a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous as to archaism than faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which inclined readily enough to what French artists of the late 18th century have imagined and depicted."

Daphnis received a lukewarm reception at its premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 8, 1912. (Nijinsky's performance of Afternoon of a Faun had caused a stir days before and Daphnis got buried in the scandal.) Soon after, Ravel published two concert suites derived from the original score, the second of which is the one far more frequently performed and more celebrated. These performances present the complete score.

The storyline of the ballet is based on the ancient Greek writer Longus' pastoral tale of the passion that grows between Daphnis and Chloe, two foundlings raised by shepherds and goatherds on the island of Lesbos. Part One introduces Daphnis and Chloe, who become fast friends. Daphnis teaches Chloe to play the pan-pipes; the two fall in love; Chloe is abducted by pirates; Daphnis prays to the god Pan for assistance. Musically, Part One introduces themes and motives more fully developed later in Parts Two and Three: a diaphanous, watery orchestral texture and the rising, sweeping Daphnis and Chloe "love theme," for example. In the context of the whole, it feels like a warm-up for the masterwork to follow. Even Ravel's pupil and friend, Alexis Roland-Manuel, wrote that Parts Two and Three, along with the resulting concert suites, contain "the essential and best-written parts of the work." But from the beginning Ravel captures a supernatural aura rhythmically, with entrances at irregular intervals of time and by syncopated or irregularly divided note values. Ravel adds to the chimerical quality of the scene by stacking chords in fourths and fifths.

Part Two opens with an a capella choir of wordless voices singing a transcendent and increasingly creepy progression of chords, announcing the arrival of Pan In the pirates' camp. Pan uses his power to terrify the pirates (we get the word "panic" from his name), and Chloe is rescued. Here we hear the trumpets in a warlike staccato motive that returns in the finale. The scene ends with flutes, oboes, English horn, harp, and strings dominating Chloe's sinuous, sexy dance.

Anyone familiar with Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 will recognize Part Three of this work, for they are virtually one and the same. The three sections of Part Three comprise the scenes following the rescue of Chloe through the finale. In "Daybreak" Daphnis is awakened by his fellow herdsmen, who bring Chloe to him. In the "Pantomime" the two lovers mime the story of Pan and Syrinx as it is narrated by the bard Lammon. This is where we hear the famous flute solo, another instance of using floating, fluid, uncertain rhythms to depict flirtation, the object of desire held just out of reach. In the final section, Daphnis and Chloe are married at the altar of the sacred nymphs, after which they and their friends perform an exultant "General Dance" that builds to the explosive conclusion - one of the most brilliant and satisfying endings in all of music - finally releasing the tension and desire that has ebbed, flowed, built in the listener throughout the program.

- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.