A good place to begin this article about Maurice Ravel's music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé is with the "little phrase." It makes an appearance in two books of Marcel Proust's massive novel Remembrance of Things Past. The first time is in Swann's Way (the novel's most popular book), the second is in The Captive. The little phrase is a melody in two pieces of music by the fictional composer Vinteuil, who is an amalgamation of several belle epoque (1871 to 1914) French impressionist composers—Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy. Few writers in the history or literature (French or otherwise) can match the beauty of Proust's musical writings. He always attempts to get to the soul of a movement, the feelings its sounds and silences stir, and, most importantly, the images its melodies inspire.
Here is a small sample of the little phrase that first appears in the Sonate de Vinteuil in Swann's Way: "Then they were silent; beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part, which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it—and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertiginous waterfall, one decries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley—the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of its transparent, incessant, and sonorous curtain." Most Proustian scholars share the opinion that the origin of the little phrase, or the "woman walking in the valley," is Saint-Saëns's "Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 75." Proust, however, did not hold a high regard for that work or its composer, and described its little phrase as "charming but mediocre." But a great phrase, a really good melody, can only be mediocre. There is no such thing as a heady and complicated melody. What connects the most heavenly work of classical music with the most fallen piece of pop you can ever imagine (for me, that is Usher's "Yeah") is the simplicity—the catchiness of a melody. Without it, a work is lost and divorced from the dance, the magic that moves your hips.
Now, before I begin writing about Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, I must recommend that you read Proust's passages on the little phrase and then find and listen to Ravel's String Quartet (another belle epoque masterpiece). The little phrase is woven into this gorgeous work—the way it vanishes for some time and then reappears later in a place you did not anticipate will move the deepest parts of your soul, like the sight of "a woman walking in the valley." (Because Proust was a closeted homosexual, it's more proper to say "a man walking in the valley.")
A cheap melody and a grand image is, for me, what Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé—a symphony he composed for ballet in 1909—is all about. The story of Daphnis et Chloé is very silly by the standards of our day. It involves a shepherd, Daphnis, and the woman he loves, Chloé, and a cowherd, Dorcon, who wants possession of the woman he loves. (Cowherds and shepherds have never gotten along.) There are also pirates in this story. They appear from nowhere and carry Chloé away. The shepherd's heart is broken (lord knows what the pirates are doing to poor Chloé), and he pleads for help from a bunch of gods. The ending is happy. But if you really want to enjoy this work, and particularly "Suite No. 2" (the only movement I listen to with religious dedication), you have to completely forget the ballet (which is an hour long). Wipe it completely out of your memory. Once your head is clear and the music begins, what you will see instead is one of the greatest sunrises in the Western canon.
This is the glorious "Suite No. 2": It opens with the rays of light (piccolo, harp, flute) on a dark horizon. The sky is still sprinkled with cold and wandering stars, but the melody (all strings), which is the sun itself, is quickly brightening. The melody begins small, but as it rises higher and higher in the sky of this music, it becomes larger and larger. We see birds coming alive in the darkling trees, we see threads of smoke above the shadows of huts, we see a young woman (the first human in this world) milking a cow. Finally, the sun is fully in the sky, which is blue and almost cloudless. The melody is just radiant, spreading its golden light across a verdant valley. Day has broken, it's time to live, to get out of bed, to walk to the fields, and to gossip about our darkest dreams. Thank God for this piece of music.