Harvard and NEC: partners in music at Sanders

by Victoria Aschheim

"One of the most beautiful products in all of French music"

– Stravinsky on Daphnis et Chloé

Dance is at the heart of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (symphonie choregraphique), inspired by the commission of the work by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Composed by Ravel between 1909 and 1912, and premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris on 8 June 1912 with Pierre Monteux conducting, the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky danced the role of Daphnis. Daphnis et Chloé is based on a Greek pastoral fable by the author Longus (3rd c. B.C.), but for the story of Daphnis (a shepherd) and Chloe (a shepherdess), Ravel’s intention was to paint "a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaism than with faithfulness to the Greece of my dreams, which is similar to that imagined and painted by French artists at the end of the eighteenth century."

In Daphnis et Chloé,Ravel created one of the most memorable scores in the history of ballet repertoire, and indeed of the orchestral repertoire, characterized by the quintessentially Ravelian union of vigorous rhythmic diversity, motoric energy, and refined lyricism. More immortalized now in the orchestral repertoire than the entire ballet score, Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2, consists of Lever du jour (Daybreak), Pantomime, and Danse generale. Suite No. 2 was a symphonic fragment taken from the entire work by Ravel (from the Third Scene of Daphnis et Chloe) while he was creating the original ballet score. It is Suite No. 2 that the New England Conservatory (NEC) Philharmonia will perform at 8pm, February 4, in Sanders Theatre, conducted by Hugh Wolff ’75, NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras.

Ravel’s gifts as an engineer of radiant orchestral dynamics and color are lavishly displayed in Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2. Daybreak is invoked by the music of the harps, celesta, winds, and strings and the sound of "the rivulets of dew trickling from the rocks" (as Ravel himself wrote), sounds which organically blossom as if from a source deep in the earth. The birds sing through the piccolo. Daphnis is awakened, Chloe emerges with the lyrical flute solo, and the rapturous embrace of Daphnis and Chloe is portrayed in the music. The riveting Dance generale follows. It is said that the dancers in this segment of the ballet production could not master Ravel’s 5/4 meter until they repeated over and over, silently in their minds, the phrase Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev, Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev.

Experience for yourself on Friday evening how the NEC Philharmonia, as Allan Koznin once wrote of Boulez and the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Daphnis et Chloé, "registers every movement, shudder and sigh that Ravel and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine hoped to suggest."

With the blog’s brilliant readership in mind, I can consider here with you the scholarly debate on Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Lawrence Kramer sees the exotic in Ravel’s composition, and he invokes elements of "eroticism and violence, the sacred and the profane" combined with "brilliant orchestration, intoxicating color, sensuous harmonies"...associated with "the sights and sounds that Europeans had found, selectively to be sure, in the world of their colonial empires." Christopher Butler (Professor of English Language and Literature and Student of Christ Church, Oxford) points out that for Kramer, this music "embodies the cultural supremacy by which Europe subsumes and organizes the non-European world…." Butler cites (in The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Music), Kramer’s argument that "the movement of the melody is governed, neither by Classical techniques of fragmentation and development, nor by Romantic techniques of continuous growth and change, but by techniques of reproduction, iteration, similitude – techniques…strikingly similar to those by which commodities are identified and distributed." Butler’s view: "I am not sure that many listeners really do have thoughts of this kind when listening to Daphnis et Chloe…Surely the response of many listeners is quite independent of this kind of critical-political sermonizing, simply because most of us already have fairly fully worked-out attitudes to imperialism, commodities, eroticism, and exoticism, and simply do not need to focus our no-doubt politically correct attitudes on a piece of music which is amazingly enjoyable on quite different levels…And from the point of view of the explanation of innovation, this kind of interpretation…refuses to engage with the innovative and creative abilities of artists…."

Scholarly ideas on art are in the air we breathe in Sanders Theatre. Surely they are involved in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70 (1945) also on tomorrow’s program. Composed by Shostakovich as World War II was ending, the Soviet news agency had announced that the Symphony would be "devoted to the Celebration of our Great Victory." As Stephen Johnson, BBC music commentator has written, "Soviet Russia prepared itself for a masterpiece of national self-celebration: a musical 'Ode to Joy’ to put beside Beethoven’s, with – naturally – an acknowledgement of the inspired role played in the Great Victory by the ‘Leader and Teacher’ himself, Joseph Stalin…the looked-for ‘Soviet Ninth’ turned out to be a bombshell – but of a completely unexpected kind." The Symphony proved quite different than expectations. In 1948 Shostakovich was denounced at the First Congress of the Union of Composers. As Johnson expressed: "Stalin, it seems, had not forgotten that act of ‘musical mischief’" – Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

The NEC Philharmonia will also present Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Julia Glenn ’12, a member of the Harvard/NEC Dual Degree Program. Keep an eye out for two other members of the Dual Degree program in the NEC Philharmonia, oboist Jonathan Bragg ’09-’10 and yours truly, percussionist Victoria Aschheim ’10.

[Caption: Daphnis and Chloe, 1961, by Marc Chagall]

[Caption: Daphnis et Chloe, 1960, by Marc Chagall]