Mission: To seek and share inspiration


Rhapsody in Blue


Program Notes


THURS MAR 9, 7:30 pm

SAT MAR 11, 8 pm

SUN MAR 12, 2 pm


RAVEL (1875–1937)

Five Nursery Songs (Suite) from Ma mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”)

• Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty
• Tom Thumb
• Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas
• Conversations of Beauty and the Beast
• The Enchanted Garden

GERSHWIN (1898–1937)

An American in Paris



Rhapsody in Blue


Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2

• Daybreak—
• Pantomime—
• General Dance

Five Nursery Songs (Suite) from Ma mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”)

Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses Pyrénées, France | Died:December 28, 1937, Paris

Work composed: 1908–1910 for piano four-hands, Ravel orchestrated the Suite in 1910

Premiere: (Piano four-hands) April 20, 1910, Paris, Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony, pianists; (Orchestral) January 28, 1912, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, Gabriel Grovlez conducting

Instrumentation2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, timpani, cymbals a2, triangle, xylophone, bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, glockenspiel (jeu de timbres à clavier), harp, celeste, strings

CSO subscription performances: Nine previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1924, Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: November 2013, Louis Langrée conducting

Durationapprox. 16 minutes

Maurice Ravel once said, “In art sincerity is hateful.” This statement could easily be the composer’s motto, for he always felt the need to hide the true feelings behind his music. As a friend once said, “Everything in Ravel proves his wish to obliterate himself and to confide nothing. He would rather be taken for unfeeling than to betray his sentiments.” He could not tolerate unreserved sentimental effusions or passionate gestures. He was deeply aware of the artifice of musical creation and of the necessity to separate art from life. On the score of Valses Nobles et sentimentales, for example, he wrote, “The delightful pleasure of a useless occupation.” For Ravel composition was a disconnected, isolated process. Only rarely does a hint of personal joy or sorrow find its way into his music.

Thus Ravel was a paradox: his artificiality was natural. Artificiality was his aesthetic. He loved the techniques of composition for their own sake, and he embraced them in the spirit of invention, not of expression. Thus he accepted specific limitations for each piece—boundaries within which, or against which, he had to make his music work. Examples of such self-challenges include Boléro, in which two melodies are repeated throughout with no variation, or the piano version of the Mother Goose Suite, which had to be playable by children. The composer’s genius worked best when confronting such specific limitations.

These traits—denial of personal feeling, separation of art from life, embracing of the falsehood of art, preference for the superficial over the profound, restraint—do not mean that Ravel’s music is cold or insensitive. For Ravel feeling and artificiality were compatible. He did not really avoid putting emotions into music: “The source of genius—that is, of artistic creation—can be made up only of instinct or feeling.” What he denied was his own personal emotions. He readily put into his compositions objective emotions, sentiments derived from outside himself, such as the feelings from the world of children in Mother Goose. He camouflaged his own emotions behind an effortless perfection and an indifferent politeness. Therein lie both the real essence of Ravel’s artificiality and the reason why he was able to elevate it to a lifelong artistic principle.

Ravel loved the innocent world of children. When he was with young people, he let his mask of artificiality slip to reveal his true warmth. Jean and Mimie Godebski were his close friends, despite their tender age. When their parents decided to start their musical education early, Ravel encouraged them by writing a four-hand piano suite that was within the range of their small hands and limited technique. 

This suite was based on five of the children’s favorite fairy tales, or nursery songs. The composer allowed himself to be less reserved than usual in this piece for and about children, and the result is arguably his warmest work.

The Five Nursery Songs from Mother Goose proved too difficult for the Godebski children to perform in public. Instead, Jeanne Leleu and Geneviève Durony, ages six and seven respectively, premiered the piece at a concert of the Independent Musical Society. Ravel said of the piece, “My intention of invoking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and thin out my writing.”

After the premiere he wrote to one of the performers:

When you will be a great virtuoso and I either an old fogey, covered with honors, or else completely forgotten, you will perhaps have pleasant memories of having given an artist the very rare joy of hearing a work of his, of a rather special nature, interpreted exactly as it should be. Thank you a thousand times for your child-like and sensitive performance.

KEYNOTE.The movements are crystalline miniatures. The first, “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods,” is particularly unpretentious. Its mere 20 measures spin out a beautifully simple series of melodies, thinly accompanied and with only incidental chromaticism. The result is a child-like clarity.

The second movement, “Hop o’ My Thumb,” depicts an episode from the Charles Perrault story of Tom Thumb, who was lost in the forest. The movement is headed, “He thought he would easily find his way back by means of the bread crumbs which he had dropped as he walked along. But he was greatly surprised when he was unable to find a single crumb. The birds had come and eaten them all up.” The crumbs are represented by a seemingly endless series of thirds in the violins. Tom is portrayed by the oboe. As he gets lost and confused, the measures stretch from 2/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4. The birds who eat the crumbs are represented—quite literally—by violin harmonics and trills.

“Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” derives from a tale by Countess Marie d’Aulnoy. According to the score, the empress “undresses herself and gets into her bath. Soon pagodas and pagodines begin to sing and play instruments. Some have theorbos made of walnut shells, others have viols made of almond shells, for the instruments had to be proportioned to their height.” The Oriental setting of this story is suggested by the xylophone, wood block and glockenspiel, and by the pentatonic flavor of the melodies.

The fourth movement is “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” after Mme. Beaumont. A portion of the dialogue is quoted in the score:

“When I think of your kind heart, you do not seem so ugly to me.”

“Oh, yes, my lady, I have a kind heart, but I am a monster.”

“There are many men more monstrous than you.”

“If I had wit, I would invent a fine compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast. Will Beauty be my wife?”

“No, good beast.”

“I die content, since I have the pleasure of seeing you once again.”

“No, dear Beast, you will not die but will become my husband.”

The Beast disappears, and Beauty sees at her feet only a prince more beautiful than love. He thanks her for having broken his enchantment. Beauty is represented by a limpid waltz melody in the clarinet, and the Beast is a grumbling chromatic line in the contrabassoon.

The final movement is “The Enchanted Garden,” which is a gradual crescendo based on a beautiful, long, slow melody.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


An American in Paris

Born: September26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York | Died: July 11, 1937 in New York

Work composed: early 1928–November 18, 1928

Premiere: December 28, 1928, New York Philharmonic, Walter Damrosch conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals a2, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, tenor drum, wood block, bass drum, 2 tom-toms, 4 taxi horns of different pitches, celeste, strings

CSO subscription performances: Five previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1929 (Emery Auditorium), Fritz Reiner conducting (George Gershwin attended the performance) | Most recent: November 2013, Louis Langrée conducting

Duration: approx. 17 minutes

Like André Previn but more than half a century earlier, George Gershwin was equally attracted to and accomplished in popular and classical music. Despite his enormous success as a creator of popular songs and musical comedies, and the popularity of the symphonic works Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F, Gershwin was unsure of his abilities as a classical composer. His music had received some criticism for looseness of form, and he was sufficiently insecure at orchestration that he often sought outside advice. He felt what he truly needed was a teacher.

He thought he found the perfect instructor when he met Maurice Ravel, who was in New York at the beginning of a four-month concert tour of the U.S. Ravel had been impressed by Gershwin’s musical 

Funny Face and wanted to meet the talented American. The two men became acquainted in January of 1928 at a party in honor of Ravel’s 53rd birthday. Gershwin entertained the party guests by playing his own piano pieces. Ravel was astonished at Gershwin’s technical prowess, artistry and ability to project complex jazz-inspired rhythms with ease.

The two composers became friends. Gershwin took Ravel to Harlem nightclubs to hear authentic jazz, which made a considerable impact on the Frenchman. Gershwin finally screwed up his courage and asked Ravel to give him some composition lessons. Ravel refused, saying that he would just end up writing “bad Ravel” instead of his own spontaneously melodious music. The French composer did, however, offer a letter of introduction to Nadia Boulanger, the great French pedagogue who taught many of America’s most promising composers, including Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond and Walter Piston.

As Gershwin was planning a trip to Paris, he looked forward to meeting Boulanger. In March he set sail first for England, where his show Oh, Kay! was playing in London, and then to Paris. This was the third and, as it turned out, last time Gershwin visited France. He had two specific goals: he wanted to compose an orchestral work called An American in Paris, inspired during his first trip to France, and he wanted to find a composition teacher—preferably Boulanger. As soon as he arrived in Paris, Gershwin had a piano moved into his hotel suite, so that he could compose. Then he set off to see Boulanger, armed with the letter from Ravel.

He played some of his piano compositions for the master teacher, whose reaction was similar to Ravel’s. Not easy to impress, Boulanger was overwhelmed by Gershwin’s natural lyricism. She felt that her academic approach to composition instruction might hamper his effusive talents. She too declined to teach him.

Gershwin next hoped to find a teacher in Stravinsky. When he met the Russian composer at a party, he asked him directly. Stravinsky replied, “How much money do you make in a year, Mr. Gershwin?” Taken aback, the American replied that the sum ran to six figures. “In that case,” Stravinsky replied, “I should study with you!” Stravinsky’s witty refusal marked the end of Gershwin’s search for a teacher in Paris, although he did later try to work with Arnold Schoenberg, who also refused to teach him.

In the meantime, Gershwin was making progress on An American in Paris. One day, he asked his friend Mabel Schirmer where he could purchase some taxi horns like those heard throughout Paris. She took him to some automobile parts shops, where he listened carefully to every available horn. He bought several and brought them back to his hotel room. He planned to use them in his new work, in order to invoke the sounds of Paris in a literal way.

After three months, Gershwin began his journey back to New York—loaded down with mementos of Paris, gifts, the collected piano works of Debussy, two versions of An American in Paris (neither finished), and cartons containing taxi horns. He had by this time received a commitment from conductor Walter Damrosch to premiere An American in Paris with the New York Philharmonic a few months hence. He completed the piano sketch soon after returning home, and the orchestration a few weeks later. The premiere followed at the end of 1928, with four taxi horns among the percussion instruments.

Although the work was intended as pure concert music, its Charleston like rhythms, jazz-inspired syncopations, blues-like trumpet melody (complete with saxophone accompaniment), and occasional Gallicisms made it a natural vehicle for the dance. Several choreographies were based on Gershwin’s score, most notably in the 1929 Ziegfeld musical Show Girl and in Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Academy Award-winning film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Nina Forch.

KEYNOTE. After completing the sketch but before orchestrating An American in Paris, Gershwin described the work in an interview:

This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted. The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and [the group of composers known as] the Six, though the tunes are all original. My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.

The opening gay section is followed by a rich “blues” with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks, has suddenly succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the preceding pages.

This “blues” rises to a climax, followed by a coda in which the spirit of this music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impressions of Paris. Apparently the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has downed his spell of blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life.

At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.

—Jonathan D. Kramer



Rhapsody in Blue

Work composed: 1908–1910 for piano four-hands, Ravel orchestrated the Suite in 1910

Premiere: February 12, 1924, New York’s Aeolian Hall, Paul Whiteman conducting his jazz band, Gershwin, piano soloist

Instrumentationsolo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals a2, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, banjo, strings

CSO subscription performances: Eight previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1927, Fritz Reiner conducting; George Gershwin, pianist | Most recent: November 2013, Louis Langrée conducting, Kirill Gerstein, pianist

Durationapprox. 15 minutes

Several composers have attempted to cross the barrier between so-called serious music and jazz. Few of their works have been as successful or as lasting, however, as one of the earliest: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The composer would no doubt have been skeptical had someone suggested to him in early 1924 that his next composition was destined to become widely admired as a prime instance of “symphonic jazz.” He would, in fact, have been incredulous, because—up until five weeks before its premiere—he was not even sure he would compose the piece. Even once he finally agreed to write a concert piece for piano and jazz band, he was unsure of his abilities to compose symphonic music. He continually sought advice from his harmony teacher.

One evening in January Gershwin was playing pool. His brother Ira sat nearby, reading a newspaper. Ira found a small item that caught his attention: “Whiteman Judges Named; Committee Will Decide ‘What Is American Music.’” The article described a concert scheduled five weeks later, on Lincoln’s Birthday, in which bandleader Paul Whiteman would present several jazz compositions to demonstrate the vitality of that indigenous American musical genre. The “committee” that was supposed to pass judgement on this new American music consisted of distinguished foreign musicians (unlikely to have much jazz expertise): composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, violinists Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist and soprano Alma Gluck.

The final sentence of the newspaper story particularly surprised Ira: “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” George had known about Whiteman’s projected “Experiment in Modern Music” for some time, but had steadfastly declined to become involved. “I’d rather write songs,” the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith had repeatedly told the bandleader. But Whiteman would not accept refusal. He had his press agent place the newspaper story, hoping that a public announcement would force Gershwin to write a jazz concerto.

The next morning the composer phoned Whiteman, intending to refuse to participate. The bandleader, however, managed to convince Gershwin to compose a piece—not a full-blown concerto, but a shorter, freer work. Since there was not much time and since Gershwin had never before written for large ensemble, he happily agreed to entrust to Whiteman’s staff composer and arranger, Ferde Grofé, the task of transforming his two-piano score into a piece for piano and jazz band (and, a few years later, into the work for piano and symphony orchestra that is heard at these concerts).

Gershwin worked quickly. He later recalled:

I was summoned to Boston for the premiere of Sweet Little Devil. I had already done some work on the rhapsody. It was on that train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the heart of noise—I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind, and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston, I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.

Whiteman’s concert was not so much an experiment in modern music as an experiment in self-promotion. Whiteman had crowned himself “King of Jazz,” yet he knew very little about what jazz really was. His music was only tangentially related to the African-American tradition from which true jazz had sprung. Whiteman’s ignorance and arrogance combined to produce a questionable aesthetic philosophy for the concert. His manager wrote:

The experiment is purely educational. Mr. Whiteman intends to point out, with the assistance of the orchestra and associates, the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of the discordant jazz, which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular, to the really melodious music of today which—for no good reason—is still being called jazz.

The newspaper article announced not only Gershwin’s participation but also that “Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.” Since Berlin could not read music, it was highly unlikely that he could produce any music for jazz orchestra. In fact, Grofé orchestrated three well-known Berlin tunes for the concert. Victor Herbert, near the end of a distinguished career as both a classical and a show composer, did write a composition for Whiteman. And there were several other works presented on the overly long, somewhat pedantic concert.

The “committee” of experts who were supposed to pass judgement on Whiteman’s “experiment” was apparently a publicity ploy: their reactions were never reported. But they did inadvertently lend a high degree of respectability to the concert, so that many other famous people attended, including luminaries from the art, music, literary, social, cultural and financial worlds.

This audience of glitterati sat through a rambling, uneven concert before hearing the work of a 24-year-old composer who had previously been known for his songs and musical shows but who was all but unknown in the classical music world. The afternoon began with what Whiteman, in blatant disregard of history, billed as “the earliest jazz composition.” The piece in question, “Livery Stable Blues,” had actually become popular only a few years before, in a recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, not an African-American band but a group of five white performers. One of the musicians in Whiteman’s rendition was clarinetist Ross Gorman, who subsequently stole the show with Grofé’s arrangement of “Carnival of Venice.” As long as Gorman was on stage, the “experimental” concert was a delight. But it sagged when he was not playing.

Late in the afternoon Gorman returned to play in the Rhapsody in Blue band. It was he who performed the famous opening clarinet solo, with its glissando (a continuous smear across several notes). Clarinetists, at least symphonic players, were not supposed to be able to play glissandos. Grofé had not written this wonderful gesture into his original score, but Gorman had whimsically added it during the first rehearsal. Gershwin liked it, and so was born one of the most famous clarinet solos in the orchestral literature.

KEYNOTE.Gershwin’s piece was hardly the first instance of symphonic jazz. Many European composers—including Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel—had succumbed to the influence of what was for them an exotic, intoxicating musical style. At the time he wrote the rhapsody, Gershwin was unaware of most of this music. Hence his music was quite different from that of his European counterparts. While they were adopting a foreign voice, Gershwin spoke American popular music as a native. For them, symphonic music was the comfortable home into which they could invite jazz as a visitor. For Gershwin, the opposite was true. He was a composer of songs and shows, for whom American pop was natural but symphonic form was foreign.

Actually, Gershwin’s symphonic jazz is neither symphonic nor jazz. Although not as ignorant of true jazz as Whiteman, Gershwin as a young man had only a passing acquaintance with African-American music (he became more familiar with it when he wrote the opera Porgy and Bess). The rhapsody has only a little to do with the blues, an archetypal form of melancholic black music. Gershwin’s music does abound with blue notes, but the poignant harmonies of the blues do not dominate this buoyant score. Gershwin’s composition is too upbeat to claim any strong affinity with the blues.

Similarly, although he admired a lot of symphonic music, and later tried to study with Ravel (who refused, fearing that he might cause Gershwin to lose his gift for melody and end up writing “bad Ravel”) and Schoenberg (who also refused), the Gershwin of Rhapsody in Blue was no symphonist. Hence the rhapsody’s loose form, which bothered the classical music critics but which today seems to insure the charm and immediacy of the piece.

Even the title Rhapsody in Blue was not an integral part of its conception. Ira Gershwin suggested replacing George’s original title American Rhapsody with one that had occurred to him while visiting an exhibit of Whistler paintings, which included “Nocturne in Black and Gold,” “Harmony in Grey and Green,” and “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (better known as “Whistler’s Mother”).

The original title, while less striking, may actually be more reflective of the composer’s intent:

In the rhapsody I tried to express our manner of living, the tempo of our modern life with its speed and chaos and vitality. I didn’t try to paint definite descriptive pictures in sound. Composers assimilate influences and suggestions from various sources and even borrow from one another’s works. That’s why I consider the rhapsody as embodying an assimilation of feeling rather than presenting specific scenes of American life in music.

If Rhapsody in Blue is neither symphonic nor jazz nor blues, what is it? It is one of the earliest and most convincing examples of crossover music. It has the infectious melodies and engaging rhythms of the best American popular music of the ‘20s, and it has the scope and sweep of a romantic concerto. Yet it is neither. It is a true original, rooted in two traditions but belonging to none. Thus it fully deserves its enormous popularity, but for itself, not for its participation in Whiteman’s experimental concert nor for its marriage of disparate idioms.

—Jonathan D. Kramer



Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2

Work composed: 1909–April 5, 1912, Suite No. 2 extracted in 1913

Premiere: likely April 30, 1914, Paris (Suite No. 2); June 8, 1912 with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina dancing the title roles (complete ballet)

Instrumentation2 flutes, 2 piccolos (one doubling), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, castanets, cymbals a2, military drum, side drum, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambour, tambourine, triangle, 2 harps, celeste, strings

CSO subscription performances: 29 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1925, Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: January 2012, Juanjo Mena conducting

Durationapprox. 18 minutes

The year 1909 saw some extraordinary new developments in European music. In Germany Richard Strauss’ controversial opera Elektra met with wildly mixed reactions. In Vienna Arnold Schoenberg was composing his first music without key center. In Italy the first of several futurist manifestos was published, calling for the destruction of music as it had been known and its replacement by the noises of machines. And France received its first exposure to the revolutionary ballets of Sergei Diaghilev’s Russian dance company.

The Russian craze was in full swing in Paris when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes first arrived. Arts patrons and artists alike were thoroughly captivated by the exoticism of the Russian productions, and Diaghilev was frequently invited to attend aristocratic Parisian soirées. There he found financial support for his troupe, which enabled him to bring elaborate productions to Paris for several seasons to come. In the salon of the wealthy patron Misia Edwards, Diaghilev met several important French artists, including Ravel.

Actually, choreographer Michel Fokine had suggested that Diaghilev get to know Ravel and his music. Fokine had formulated some ideas for an exciting new conception of ballet. He felt he needed both Ravel’s music and Diaghilev’s backing to enable him to realize these ideas.

Fokine envisioned a ballet in which:

…the whole meaning of the story can be expressed by the dance. Above all, dancing should be interpretive. It should not degenerate into mere gymnastics. It should, in fact, be the plastic word…. For such interpretive dancing, the music must be equally inspired. In place of the old-time waltzes, polkas, pizzicato and gallops, it is necessary to create a form of music that expresses the same emotion that inspired the movements of the dancer.… The ballet must no longer be made up of “numbers,” “entries,” and so forth. It must show artistic unity of conception. The action of the ballet must never be interrupted to allow the danceur or danseuse to respond to the applause of the public.… The great, the outstanding feature of the new ballet is that in place of acrobatic tricks designed to attract applause, there shall be but one thing—the aspiration of beauty. There shall be unity of the three elements—music, painting and plastic art.

Once he got to know Ravel, Diaghilev agreed with Fokine that here was the right composer to provide the music for Fokine’s new kind of ballet. Ravel was interested in working with these Russians. He had long been intrigued with Russian music, but he felt it to be too undisciplined. Diaghilev shared the composer’s opinion. He sought in his ballets, and in the music for them, technical perfection as well as raw excitement. The impresario found in Ravel a sympathetic mind, a fellow perfectionist and a composer of colorful orchestrations and exciting rhythms.

Ravel and Fokine worked together on the scenario for a ballet based on the third-century pastoral romance “Daphnis and Chloé.” Their collaboration was not easy. The composer recalled:

Almost every night, work until 3 a.m. What complicates things is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French and I know only how to swear in Russian. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the flavor of these meetings.

The composer explained his conception of Daphnis:

It was my intention, when I wrote it, to compose a large fresco painting, less in keeping with antiquity than with the Greece of my dreams, which was more closely related to a Greece such as French artists had portrayed at the end of the 18th century. The work is constructed symphonically, on a very strict tonal plan, based on a small number of motives, the full development of which is assured by the symphonic unity of the whole.

As Daphnis was the largest work Ravel was ever to compose, it occupied him for some time. He completed the piano score in the spring of 1910, but the orchestration remained undone. Enough of the score was ready in 1911 for a suite extracted from the ballet to be performed in concert. This was the First Suite, which created a furor when premiered. Ravel continued to work on the ballet, totally rewriting the finale in 1911. He developed a mental block against finishing the work. Diaghilev kept prodding, but the composer responded, “Do you want it now or do you want it good?” The composer even went so far as to try to hire Louis Aubert to write the final section. When Aubert wisely refused, Ravel managed to turn out the music—which is essentially the Second Suite—in two weeks.

The premiere was finally scheduled in 1912, but the music was completed and copied only a month before the opening. There were other difficulties that led to a less than ideal performance: choreographer Fokine had frequent disagreements with lead dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the stylized sets and costumes conceived by painter Léon Bakst were aesthetically far removed from Ravel and Fokine’s conception, and the dancers had had no prior experience with the unusual five-beat meter of the final scene. They were able to keep the count only by repeating to themselves over and over the five-syllable name Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev. Yet this same company was destined to cope with the far more complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring the very next season.

The complete Daphnis score calls for an enormous orchestra and a wordless chorus. This large ensemble posed practical difficulties for taking the production on tour. Reluctantly, Ravel agreed to make an alternative version without chorus, but only with the understanding that Diaghilev would hire a chorus whenever the ballet was presented in a major city. When Diaghilev brought Daphnis to London in 1914, he took the more economical route and omitted the singers. Ravel was incensed, and he wrote a “letter to the editor” of four London newspapers:

My most important work, Daphnis et Chloé, is to be produced at the Drury Lane Theater on Tuesday, June 9. I was overjoyed and, fully appreciating the honor done to me, considered the event as one of the weightiest in my artistic career. Now I learn that what will be produced before the London public is not my work in its original form but a makeshift arrangement which I had accepted to write at M. Diaghilev’s special request, in order to facilitate production in certain minor centers. M. Diaghilev probably considers London as one of the aforesaid “minor centers,” since he is about to produce at Drury Lane, in spite of his positive word, the new version, without choir. I am deeply surprised and grieved, and I consider the proceedings as disrespectful towards the London public as well as towards the composer.

Diaghilev replied defensively, and Ravel counter-rebutted. The result was that the London performance did omit the chorus, but Diaghilev signed a contract agreeing to use voices in all subsequent productions. The version without chorus is nonetheless still frequently employed.=

KEYNOTE. The story: a band of pirates invades a peaceful Greece. They overpower a group of maidens, one of whom is Chloé, beloved of Daphnis. The invaders capture Chloé.

The music of the Second Suite begins with daybreak following the pirates’ night of terror. Ravel’s evocation of the peaceful beginning of a new day is masterful. The shimmering of harps and winds accompanies a slowly unfolding melody in the low strings. No noise is heard other than the murmur of streams accumulating from the dew running off rocks. Daphnis is stretched out before the grotto of the nymphs. Gradually daylight comes. Soon bird songs are heard in three violins and a piccolo. An ornamented piccolo tune indicates that a shepherd is passing in the distance with his flock. A melody on the small E-flat clarinet portrays a second shepherd. A group of herdsmen appears looking for Daphnis and Chloé. They discover Daphnis and awaken him. As the string music becomes more definite, he begins his anxious search for his beloved. Finally she appears, surrounded by shepherds. To an impassioned theme in the strings, the two lovers embrace. The music becomes hushed as Daphnis notices Chloé’s halo, indicating that his dream of Pan rescuing her has become a prophecy fulfilled. Finally the undulations that have been present from the beginning subside, and an oboe melody portrays the old shepherd Lammon. He explains that Pan saved Chloé because she reminded him of the nymph Syrinx, with whom he was smitten.

The second scene of the Second Suite begins with a trio for oboes and English horn. Daphnis and Chloé mime the adventures of Pan and Syrinx. Chloé represents the young nymph wandering in the meadow. The strings answer, as Daphnis declares his love. The nymph pushes him away. He becomes more insistent. She disappears into the roses. Desperate, he uproots a few stems and makes a flute, on which he plays a melancholy air. Chloé appears and dances to this flute music. The music becomes energetic, and the dance becomes more animated. It suddenly breaks for a woodwind descent, as Chloé falls into the arms of Daphnis. After a silence, the music is slow and chordal. Before the altar of the nymphs and over two sacrificial lambs, Daphnis swears his faith. As the music becomes animated once more, in comes a group of girls dressed as bacchantes, dancing to tambourine music. Daphnis and Chloé embrace tenderly. Several young men arrive. The music builds to a brief climax and then dies down, as the “General Dance” begins.

The story is ended, and the final scene brings the main characters into a sweeping dance that rises to a stunning climax, a Dionysian celebration of physical love.

—Jonathan D. Kramer