Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe

Return to Concert Page



John Corigliano: Conjurer
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe


Conjurer: Concerto for Percussionist and String Orchestra and Brass

COMPOSER: Born February 16, 1938, New York City
WORLD PREMIERE: Marin Alsop conducted the first performance on February 21, 2008, with the Pittsburgh Symphony and soloist Evelyn Glennie.
Soloist: Marimba, xylophone, 18 wooden instruments of the performer’s choosing arranged into a “wooden keyboard,” chimes, tam-tams, cymbal, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, talking drum, kick drum, tom-toms, congas, bass drum, and timpani
Orchestra: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and strings

When asked to compose a percussion concerto, my only reaction was horror.

All I could see were problems. While I love using a percussion battery in my orchestral writing, the very thing that makes it the perfect accent to other orchestral sonorities makes it unsatisfactory when it takes the spotlight in a concerto.

For starters, a percussionist plays dozens of instruments. Again, this is wonderful if their role is to color an orchestral texture, but if they are the main focus, it is terrible. The aural identity of the player is lost amid the myriad bangs, crashes, and splashes of the percussion arsenal. Only the visual element of one person playing all these instruments ties them together.

In addition, most of the instruments have no pitch at all (or very little), and don’t sustain a sound (like a violin or trumpet).

As a result, most percussion concertos I have heard sound like orchestral pieces with an extra-large percussion section. The melodic interest always rests with the orchestra, while the percussion plays accompanying figures around it.

Of course, one could limit oneself to writing for keyboard percussion: marimba or vibraphone, for example. Many concertos have been written like this, and the combination of using an instrument with definite pitches and restricting oneself to one instrument does focus the work on a single soloist.

I thought of all of this as I sat down to discuss my writing a percussion concerto. Obviously I had more than mixed views about this project, but something about the challenge fascinated me, too.

Many of my works begin this way. I pose a problem and write a piece as the solution. In this case, the problem is the following: How do I write a concerto for a solo percussionist playing many different instruments in which the soloist is always clearly the soloist (even with your eyes closed), and how do I write a concerto in which there are real melodies – and those melodies are introduced by the percussionist, not the orchestra?


The pitched wood instruments are the xylophone and marimba. To supplement this, I constructed a “keyboard” of unpitched wooden instruments (wood block, claves, log drum, etc.) ranging from high to low and placed it in front of the marimba. The soloist could play pitched notes on the marimba and then strike unpitched notes on the wooden keyboard.

The initial cadenza starts with unpitched notes, but gradually pitched notes enter and various motives are revealed as well as ideas based upon the interval of a fifth. This interval will run through the entire concerto as a unifying force.

After a climactic run, the orchestra enters, developing the fifth interval into a rather puckish theme. Soloist and orchestra develop the material and build to a climactic xylophone solo, and finally return to the opening theme.


The cadenza is for chimes (tubular bells) accompanied by tam-tams and suspended cymbals. It is loud and clangorous, with the motivic fifths clashing together. The movement itself, however, is soft and long lined. The melody that will end the movement is introduced in the low register of the vibraphone, and the movement develops to a dynamic climax where the chimes return, and then subsides to a soft texture in the lower strings as the struck/bowed vibraphone plays its melody.


The skin cadenza features a “talking drum” accompanied by a kick drum. The talking drum is played with the hands, and can change pitch as its sides are squeezed. Strings connect the top and bottom skins, and squeezing stretches them tighter – and raises the pitch. It provides a lively conversation with a kick drum: a very dry small bass drum played with a foot pedal and almost exclusively used as part of a jazz drum set. This cadenza starts slowly, but builds to a loud and rhythmic climax.

The movement then begins with the soloist and orchestra playing a savage rhythmic figure that accelerates to a blinding speed. A central section brings back the fifths against a pedal timpanum that is played with the hands in a “talking drum” style. The accelerando returns, and leads to a wild and improvised cadenza, using all the drums and a virtuoso finish.

Once it was complete, it occurred to me that the piece’s cadenza-into-movement form characterizes the soloist as a kind of sorcerer. The effect in performance is that the soloist doesn’t so much as introduce material as conjure it, as if by magic, from the three disparate choirs – materials which the orchestra then shares and develops – hence, the title “Conjurer.”

© 2008 John Corigliano


Daphnis and Chloe

COMPOSER: Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France; died December 28, 1937, Paris
WORK COMPOSED: Ravel began composing in June 1909, and completed a first draft of the piano score on May 1, 1910. Ravel struggled to complete the final scene of Daphnis; it took him another 18 months, during which time he orchestrated and made other substantial revisions and expansions to the ballet through 1911. Ravel finished the orchestral score on April 5, 1912.
WORLD PREMIERE: Pierre Monteux conducted the Ballets Russes’ first performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, on June 8, 1912.
INSTRUMENTATION: SATB chorus, 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, crotales, cymbals, field drum, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, wind machine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

When Serge Diaghilev asked Maurice Ravel to write a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909, Ravel had no idea what creative frustrations awaited him. Ravel was no stranger to ballet music – a substantial number of Ravel’s compositions were written for or later transformed into ballets – but in this instance, it was Diaghilev and his choreographer Michel Fokine, not Ravel, who chose the subject: the ancient Greek tale of Daphnis and Chloe. After a financially disastrous 1908 season, Diaghilev sought to boost attendance by commissioning music from French composers. For his part, Ravel viewed Diaghilev’s request as a great opportunity to boost his compositional bona fides.

Trouble began when Ravel found himself in an artistic standoff with Fokine. The two men had entirely different and incompatible ideas about how to interpret the story, which led to a number of arguments. Ravel opted for “a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with faithfulness to the Greece of my dreams, which is similar to that imagined and depicted by French artists at the end of the 18th century.” The paintings to which Ravel refers portray an invented, imaginary ancient Greece, where innocently naked nymphs and shepherds gambol in lush countryside in an atmosphere of chaste purity. In contrast, Fokine wanted an erotic, carnal portrayal, taking his inspiration from the frankly sexual images found in ancient Greek art. Both men knew the original version of Daphnis and Chloe, written by the second-century Greek poet/novelist Longus, only via a 1559 French translation by Jacques Amyot.

Not long after he began working on Daphnis, Ravel wrote to a friend, “I have to tell you that I’ve just had an insane week: preparation of the libretto for a ballet to be performed for the next Russian season, work every night until three in the morning. Things are even more complicated because Fokine doesn’t know a word of French, and all I know of Russian is how to swear in it . . . you can imagine the atmosphere of these meetings.” Fokine eventually, and with some difficulty, moderated his viewpoint to align with Ravel’s version. Some years after the premiere of Daphnis and Chloe, Fokine wrote in his memoirs, “I loved the score from the first time I heard it . . . but I must admit that in some places I somehow felt a lack of virility which, in my opinion, was necessary for a projection of the world of antiquity.”

Ravel sketched out a one-act ballet in three scenes, or tableaux, which he described as “a choreographic symphony in three parts.” The first two tableaux proceeded relatively smoothly, but Ravel found himself stymied by the finale. Eighteen months passed before he was able to complete the music, which meant Diaghilev had to postpone his planned 1910 premiere until June of 1912.

For his part, Diaghilev had such grave doubts about the “symphonic” nature of the score, fearing it unsuitable for ballet, that he considered scrapping the whole project; he thought the music heavy on atmosphere at the expense of action. Ravel’s belated completion of the score meant the dancers did not get enough rehearsals before the premiere. Even with sufficient time, Ravel’s music still presented formidable challenges: the dancers had difficulty with Ravel’s use of unconventional time signatures (7/4 and 5/4), as well as his penchant for off-beat accents and abrupt tempo changes. Add the fact that Diaghilev cut the original four scheduled performances to two, and it is no surprise that Daphnis and Chloe attained only moderate success as a ballet.

In the first scene, shepherds worship at an altar dedicated to three nymphs, while shepherdesses dance seductively around Daphnis. This kindles Chloe’s jealousy; in naïve retaliation, she responds to the amorous attentions of the cowherd Dorcon. Dorcon and Daphnis then compete in a dance contest (Dance générale); the winner gets a kiss from Chloe. Dorcon’s clumsy attempts provoke mockery from the watchers, while Daphnis’ graceful display earns him victory. After Chloe bestows her kiss, Daphnis becomes distracted by the seductive dance of the shepherdess Lyceion. Without warning, pirates attack and kidnap Chloe, who begs the nymphs in vain for help; Daphnis arrives too late to rescue her. The watching nymphs offer Daphnis solace and send for the god Pan. The second tableau opens in the pirates’ enclave, where they unload their booty and display their prowess in a pugilistic dance. When the pirates exhaust themselves, their leader commands Chloe to dance; she uses the opportunity to attempt an escape. A group of satyrs encircle the pirates, who then flee when they see Pan approaching. In the third scene, Chloe is reunited with Daphnis, and they dance in joy and gratitude as the golden glow of sunrise lightens the sky. Daphnis and Chloe’s dance becomes amorous, recalling Pan’s love for the nymph Syrinx. As their passion grows, the surrounding shepherds and nymphs join in a wild, celebratory bacchanal.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com



Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe (complete)
Charles Munch – Boston Symphony Orchestra
RCA Victor Living Stereo 61388
Jean Martinon – Orchestre de Paris
EMI/Warner Classics 892