Thursday 14 December 2017

Ravel danced to Russian's tune for ballet masterpiece

George Hamilton

The French composer Maurice Ravel is best remembered for something with a distinctly Spanish flavour. He was the man who gave us Boléro -- universally recognised, yet treasured and disparaged in equal measures. But that singular piece of fluff is far from being his masterpiece.

That is the score for a ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, and the story of how it came about is quite a tale. This was around 100 years ago, when Paris was very much cutting edge in the arts, the place to put on your show, and, fresh out of the conservatory, Ravel was making his name. His pieces were mainly small scale, but he was doing well enough to come to the notice of one of the most important people in town.

Serge Diaghilev was a Russian promoter who'd based himself in Paris. He'd a big success one summer with a production of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, which he staged with a company from St Petersburg.

For this man on a mission, ballet was an obvious next step. But Diaghilev wasn't one for convention -- he wanted to push the boundaries -- and his ideas for the development of dance also demanded new music. He found new talent to provide it.

Diaghilev's bet was that Ravel could produce a winning score. "Astound me!" he challenged him, as he did everybody he commissioned.

Ravel set to work, and spent 12 months at the piano, developing what he called a "choreographic symphony". But turning it into the complete version for a full-blown orchestra of 50-plus players, not to mention a wind machine and a chorus with no words to sing, proved tortuous. It took him another two years.

Along the way, though, maybe even to prove he was on the right lines, he constructed a concert suite from what he'd already written and it went down well.

Finally, in the spring of 1912, it all came together, and this love story of the two orphans brought up by shepherds on an island off ancient Greece took to the stage for the first time in June of that year.

The music from Daphnis et Chloé is sumptuous, sparkling and emotional by turns, and mostly heard these days in suite form. Ravel himself, though, would maintain that as it was constructed as a symphony, it would make more sense -- even without the dancing -- to hear the whole thing.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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