Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2 performed at Colden Auditorium, Queens College by the New York Youth Symphony's Orchestra
There are certain iconic works in the orchestral repertoire that we recall as much for the purely visceral experience as for any specific musical narrative; think of "The Rite of Spring," the memory of whose urgent barbarism springs to mind before we recall any of the actual notes, or "Tristan and Isolde," whose title alone seems to pulse with feverish romantic intensity. Mention Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" to a music-lover and you are most likely to see them pause for a moment, basking in their recollection of the work's vivid, diaphanous swirl. Yet for all its sensual pleasures, the work is an ingeniously constructed treasure trove of compositional and orchestrational marvels.
Ravel finished his work on "Daphnis et Chloé" in 1912. His second suite, culled from the final three scenes of the ballet, was produced in 1913, and has since become his most popular major orchestral work (not counting the ubiquitous "Bolero"). Like the "Rite," this ballet owes its existence to the "Ballet Russes," Serge Diaghilev's great Russian ballet company that resided in Paris between 1909 and 1929, and launched the careers of Nijinsky, Balanchine, Stravinsky, and Michel Fokine. It was Fokine who distilled the scenario of "Daphnis" from a 3rd century Greek romance of the same name, a pastorale about a 15-year old boy and a 13-year old girl hopelessly in love but too young to cope with their burgeoning emotions. It is a melodrama involving pirates, sacred nymphs, bacchanals, gods, goddesses, and happy endings. Ravel felt strongly that Fokine's narrative needed revision, the process of which caused him to write in frustration, "...almost every night work until 3 a.m. What complicates things is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian.” The provocative premiere of Nijinisky's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" a few weeks prior to the "Daphnis" premiere overshadowed any success Ravel hoped to garner, but the music was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.
The suite contains the coda of the ballet. "Lever du jour" ("Daybreak") depicts the return of Chloé after having been carried off by pirates. The music suggests the rising sun, whose rays reveal the glorious vast Greek landscape, the birds and animal life that dwell there, and the two lovers who are finally to be reunited. The grand climax of this movement is a technicolor wonder of orchestration, with two harps and a battery of metallic percussion that blind the listener with light. "Pantomime" depicts the reunited couple reenacting the myth of Pan and his love for the nymph Syrinx. This courtly dance is one of Ravel's compositional triumphs: a winding, exotic flute solo that has become one of the great tests for any orchestral player. The "Danse générale" is a wild bacchanal in celebration of Pan, a Dionysian party whose asymmetrical 5/4 time signature and frenzied wind and string writing suggest a celebration joyfully out of control. The climax is a tumult of ecstasy, as raucous and alive as the opening bars of the Suite are cool, languid, and mesmerizing.