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Five reasons to love Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé

Uncover the enchanting world of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé — an ethereal ballet that weaves together Ancient Greek tales of danger and desire.


By Timmy Fisher

5-minute read

Greek myth, rustic lovers and pirates

Maurice Ravel’s ‘vast musical fresco’ is based on a pastoral romance by the 2nd-century Greek author Longus. Set on the island of Lesbos, it follows the turbulent romance of goatherd Daphnis and shepherdess Chloé, wrought apart by pirates but reunited with the help of the god Pan.

The ballet was adapted by the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine, with input from scenic designer Léon Bakst and Ravel himself, though the three had a tricky working relationship and took a long time to settle on the final scenario. (‘What particularly complicates matters is that Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian,’ Ravel wryly commented.)

There are three parts and 13 sub-sections. Fokine’s intention was for the drama to run continuously, so there remains an expansive sweep to the work, despite set pieces, such as Dorcon’s ‘grotesque dance’ and the pirates’ ‘War Dance’.

Carefully drawn characters

Although borrowed from Greek mythology, Ravel’s characters remain true to his own vision of the work, ‘less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies willingly with that imagined and depicted by late 18th-century French painters’.

Daphnis, a goatherd, love-struck and graceful in his movements
Chloé, his shepherdess lover
Dorcon, a grotesque cowherd, sounded on three bassoons, who competes with Daphnis for the favour of a kiss from Chloé
Lycéion, a shepherdess who fails to seduce Daphnis using a flute melody based on the lovers’ shared theme
Pan, the Greek god to whom Daphnis prays when Chloé is abducted

Pirates, ferocious and crude; their chief harbours covetous intentions towards Chloé
Nymphs, cursed by Daphnis for failing to protect Chloé
Satyrs, Pan’s army of wild spirits, formidably equipped with brass and percussion, who rout the pirates and return Chloé to the grotto of the nymphs

Sensual and symbolic

Daphnis and Chloé is the most expansive of Ravel’s compositions. Written for a large orchestra, it boasts a rich array of percussion instruments such as crotales (small bronze symbols), castanets and a wind machine. Meanwhile, a wordless chorus, first heard right at the opening of the work, expands the sumptuous musical palette.

Ravel was a master of orchestral colour. Part 3’s ‘Daybreak’ is perhaps his greatest achievement in this regard: one of the most radiant and scintillatingly orchestrated sunrises in all music. Though Daphnis and Chloé the ballet wasn’t a major success, Ravel’s music made an immediate impression. He created two orchestral suites from the music, the second of which has become a repertoire staple.

Much of the onstage action is signposted in the score. There are three main themes that recur throughout. Two of them – an echoing motif in the horns and an intricate reed-pipe call, high on a solo flute – are associated with Pan and the nymphs, and represent the religious element in the story. The third theme, a sensuous, u-shaped melody first heard in the horns, is associated with Daphnis and Chloé and represents the ballet’s erotic element.

Ravel’s triumph over struggle 

The epic scale required by Fokine’s structural concept was completely new to Ravel. It was also his first time working on a subject he hadn’t chosen. The main themes of the ballet’s story – sexual passion and religious sentiment – were not natural topics for him, and so progress on the music was necessarily slow. In the end, Daphnis and Chloé wasn’t premiered until three years after it had been commissioned.

The dizzying finale caused Ravel particular trouble. Despairing, he eventually turned to his great idol Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: ‘It’s quite simple: I put Rimsky’s Scheherazade on the piano and copied it.’ (Scheherazade had years earlier inspired two other works by Ravel, an overture and a song-cycle, both entitled Shéhérazade.)

Unfortunately for Ravel, when Daphnis and Chloé eventually premiered, at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 18 June 1912, it was royally upstaged by a notorious ballet adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun, which had caused uproar the previous month.

It paved the way for Igor Stravinsky

Had Ravel fulfilled his commission on time, the world may have been deprived of both Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which replaced Daphnis and Chloé for the 1910 Ballet Russes season, and his follow-up, Petrushka, which did the same a year later. All three were commissioned by the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. By the time of Petrushka’s premiere, Stravinsky had got well started on his infamous Rite of Spring, whose premiere in 1913 is surely one of the great pivot points in music history.

But much of what audiences found most shocking in Stravinsky’s Rite can be traced back to Daphnis and Chloé. The vigorous and ever more animated ‘War dance’, for example, is so primitive and carnal in its ferocity. Stravinsky, it seems, had much to be grateful to Ravel for.


Written by Timmy Fisher, sub-editor within the BBC Proms Publications team, co-host of The Classical Music Pod, writer and journalist.

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