Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), born Joseph-Maurice Ravel, was a renowned French composer who made a name for himself around the turn of the 20th Century. During his youth, Ravel studied at the Paris Conservatoire under another significant French composer and musician, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Under Fauré's instruction, Ravel began to develop his own style of composition, exemplifying meticulously orchestrated lyricism and unique musical textures and effects. As a contemporary of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Ravel also became a figurehead in musical impressionism during his career as a composer. Influenced by the Impressionist movement, as well as elements of the French Baroque, Spanish folk tradition, and American jazz, Ravel's compositions were unlike anything that had been experienced before.
In 1909, Ravel began his work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, working alongside of Russian patron, Sergei Diagalev, creating an orchestral score that would later be known as one of his finest masterpieces.
Ravel began working on the score for Daphnis et Chloé in 1909, but the work was not premeired in Paris until June of 1912. The ballet took an extended period of time to complete due to the massive instrumentation and choral divisions, as well as the length of the ballet, timed at close to an hour. Due to the immense size of this work, Ravel was later able to extract two orchestral suites from the ballet that can be performed in concert, with or without chorus.
The story of Daphnis et Chloé was written based on a drama in Greek mythology, concerning the love between a goatherder and a shepheress. In true impressionist form, the ballet score is heavily laced with musical imagery using lush harmonies and melodies as well as instrumental effects in order to depict nature and the surrounding atmosphere. For example, Ravel uses repeated arpeggiated scales in extended harmonies to evoke allusions of rushing waters. Ravel did not follow the emerging trend in atonality, but instead used modality as his main harmonic language, strengthening the allusive aesthetic of his works. This ballet also exemplifies Ravel's rhythmic complexity, as seen in the famous flute solo. As if appearing from thin air, the flute begins to sing a sweet melody of love, but takes unexpected rhythmic and harmonic turns in order to evoke a sense of flirtation and desire.
Though their compositional styles have significant similarities and differences, Ravel and Debussy are known to this day as the two of the most influential figureheads in French impressionist music. Both composers helped to broaden musical perception and analysis at the turn of the 20th century. In relation to Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy's tone poem, Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), also epitomizes the true essence of impressionism by evoking emotion through suggestion. Written between 1891 and 1894, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is based on a symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem describes the Greek mythological tale of a faun who expresses his emotions through his meloncholic pan-pipe playing. The opening flute solo, similar to the flute solo in Daphnis et Chloé, is meant to evoke a sense of wonder and mystery. While Ravel executes this by his rhythmic shifts and extended harmonies, Debussy uses chromaticism to delay any sense of tonal center as well as using short motifs and musical cells in order to create an improvisitory feel. Both works, though approached slightly different in composition, are not meant to symbolize a specific mood or feeling, but instead provide allusions based on suggestion. Both works also push tonality and harmonic function to the next level.
It is interesting to me that Ravel is not only known as an impressionist, but also a classicist. Since he was Influenced by the French Baroque, Ravel's compositions were grounded in traditional structures and forms. Though Ravel was indeed considered an innovative composer, he molded his compositional style by studying what came before him. After discovering this aspect of Ravel's style, I can see how he differs from Debussy, even though they are both classified as impressionists. After analyzing Debussy's compositions, it is evident to me that Debussy wanted to drastically break with tradition and pursue the trend of atonality that evolved in the 20th century. Though influenced by impressionism, Ravel's compositions were rooted in classical form and included a variety of musical influences, creating a unique, blended musical style.
"Claude Debussy- Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, for flute and piano." Youtube Video. Posted by Epogdous. Uploaded on May 12, 2011. Accessed on April 25, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6nk1FA6a5k
Grout, Donald Jay. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton. 1960. Print.
"Jeffrey Khaner plays Daphnis et Chloe flute solo," Youtube Video. Posted by Sixto Federico Montesinos. Uploaded on May 24, 2009. Accessed on April 28, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E10nSzjs5vk
Ravel, Maurice. Daphnis et Chloé. Score. IMSLP. Accessed April 25, 2013. http://conquest.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/e/e5/IMSLP82225-PMLP80636-Ravel_-_Daphnis_et_Chloe_Suite_2_FS.pdf