Length: c. 18 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, and strings
About this Piece
From the highway in a fast car to the heavens, our imaginative journey continues — and concludes — with a seaside, sundappled port in this timeless tone poem by Maurice Ravel. After three years of work, he completed the ballet Daphnis et Chloé in 1912 (it premiered in Paris one month before Prokofiev unveiled his First Piano Concerto), and the whole affair was quite a debacle. It was the first and last time the French Impressionist worked with Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The irascible producer, best remembered for his association with Igor Stravinsky, asked if he could back out as soon as Ravel turned in the score, and it was a series of clashes from that point on. The ballet was not a hit when it premiered, but the music demanded further attention. Stravinsky himself said it was “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”
The story was based on an ancient Greek play about a goatherd, Daphnis, and his shepherdess lover, Chloé, who gets abducted by pirates. Ravel arranged two orchestral suites from the score, and the second — derived from the ballet’s third act — is concerned with the goatherd’s hopeful dream involving the god Pan, Chloé’s rescue, and their happy reunion. As descriptive and visual as its inspiration was, Ravel would not have called this “program music,” but instead referred to it as a “choreographic symphony.”
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, former Associate Conductor of the LA Phil, suggested that the composer was afraid of just one thing: “restraining the human fantasy.” When conducting the suite herself, she motivated the orchestra with the words of an early Arabic philosopher: “Listen with your eyes, and see with your ears.” In the first movement, Lever du jour (Sunrise), orchestral waters swell to life from a murmur to blooming major chords. A hopeful string theme glides over a rolling bed as woodwinds flit and sing. A spirit of halfasleep, half-dreaming hope persists even as minor-key clouds pass in front of the sun. In Pantomime, sleepy string chords slide under solo winds, leading into an exotic, flirtatious flute solo accompanied by a quiet pizzicato rhythm. Strings ebb and flow with mystery, and noble French horns begin to lend the piece maturity – when suddenly the orchestra is overtaken by impish frolic, leading into the Danse Générale. The percussive dance, motored along by staccato horn rhythms and more oceanic surging of strings, leads toward a rousing, clanging climax while never losing the quality of flushed, enraptured play.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.