Dancing with the Nymphs on Lesbos

Edgar Degas painted these two lovely dancers on a stage. (Courtesy The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

If you don’t know this piece – the introduction should give you an idea about the composer identity. The signature is unique – Ravel! Yes, the style of the “Introduction and Religious Dance” reminds me of Ravel’s “Boléro“. Long before he composed that famous piece, he wrote the enchanting ballet “Daphnis et Chloé”. It goes back to a tale from the late Antiquity about the goat-herd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloe. The setting is a pastoral landscape on the Greek island of Lesbos. The Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned the score in 1909, the piece was first performed in Paris in 1912.

Pirates, pirates!

The ballet is written in one act divided in three parts. Part I presents Daphnis and Chloe along with three nymphs in that pastoral setting. Daphnis and a cowherd enter into a dance contest to win the grace of Chloe. The cowherd’s performance is clumsy and he is chased away. Later Chloe is captured by pirates and abducted into a cavern. The nymphs discover Daphnis who had failed to protect Chloe and has abandoned all hope to see her back. The nymphs begin a slow and mysterious dance and ask the god Pan for help.

Part II is set in the pirates’ camp. Chloe performs a dance of supplication and tries to escape without being successful. Suddenly, fires light up, the earth opens and Pan enters the stage. Everybody flees in terror. In Part III, Daphnis, woken by the nymphs, and Chloe, saved through Pan’s intervention, meet again as the sun rises. In a dance they reenact the story of Pan’s love for the nymph Syrinx. As the dance turns increasingly passionate, the surrounding crowd joins in and a communal dance concludes the ballet.

Ravel called his piece a “choreographic symphony” and here lies the particular charm of the piece. It is captivating even if not performed by dancers on a stage. If you are a little familiar with the plot, you can start the music, close your eyes and imagine the rest just by listening to the music. It has incredible suggestive power! A recording that I strongly recommend and that has been widely applauded by critics is the one by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev.

Beauty married to mystery

What parts would I like to highlight? First, there is the introduction – my first association was passing through the door of a fairy world or a magical garden and gradually discovering all the strange creatures. Beauty married to mystery – what a delight! Then there is the grotesque dance of the cowherd – hilarious through the contrasts in the music. And if this theme reminds you of the “Gnome” episode in Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition“, that’s no coincidence. The best known orchestra version of Mussorgsky’s piano cycle was written by… Ravel.

I truly like Chloe’s dance begging the pirates for mercy, but Ravel’s rendering of the rising sun at the beginning of part III is of unmatched beauty. Very evocative, almost impressionistic, while the finale where Chloe and Daphnis are reunited and dance with the crowd is best described by what the Financial Times’ critic wrote in 2010 about the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance: high-voltage.

I hope you will take the time to discover and enjoy this music. You will not regret it.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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