The Clarinetist’s Companion to Daphnis et Chloé

If you’re on the orchestral clarinet audition circuit, chances are you’ve encountered the second orchestral suite from Daphnis et Chloé. This suite is from the one-act ballet (or choreographic symphony, as Ravel himself described it) premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1912, and it has haunted challenged clarinetists ever since.

The original ballet is about an hour long, but Ravel created two orchestral suites which can be performed with our without a chorus. The second suite, our topic of discussion today, is more commonly performed and features the recognizable “Danse générale.”

Without further ado, let’s dive into some tips and tricks to help you prepare this challenging excerpt!

Excerpt 1: boxes 155 through 158

Nothing like some dodecatuplets (groups of 12 notes) to start off the suite, am I right? In all seriousness, this may seem overwhelming, but I promise that clean technique is challenging yet achievable. Let’s break it down:

Clarinet section: Clarinets 1 and 2 in A, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet

You will be expected to play the first clarinet part at most auditions, although you should be prepared to play both parts throughout the suite.

Tempo: ♩ = 50 according to the score, but performances typically vary from ♩=48-54

In the first passage (second measure of box 155 to box 156), the D-flat to E-flat is most likely the trickiest note sequence, and you have a few options to overcome this:

  1. Play them normally with D-flat on the left and E-flat on the right (or vice versa if you have the left hand E-flat key), flipping pinky fingers to get from one to the other. This will affect the pitch but is acceptable to achieve smoothness of technique and fluidity of sound.
  2. Hold down the left hand D-flat pinky key the entire passage (until box 156). This will not affect any of the other pitches, and while it might feel strange at first, it creates a much smoother sequence.
  3. The unorthodox approach: if your left pinky doesn’t want to cooperate, you can replace this finger with an extra reed! Before beginning this excerpt, put the thick end of a reed under the D-flat tone hole at the bottom of the lower joint. This will keep the key open (pressed down) the entire time. You can also wedge the reed in between the two longer left pinky keys (B and D-flat), which will have the same effect. If you decide to do this, just be sure you can remove it quickly enough before beginning the next sequence at 156.

Practice tips

  • Even though I can’t hear you playing it, I can nearly guarantee that you’re probably too loud. This excerpt should sound like a shimmering sparkle of sound – like a brook murmuring in a quiet forest. Make sure you match the flutes as work on this excerpt.
  • Make sure you are using fast and steady air to support the sound, especially in the softer dynamics.
  • Practice each sequence in a variety of rhythmic patterns to make the finger technique more flexible and fluid.
  • Divide the 12-note patterns into smaller groups. I like to feel each beat as 3-2-2-5, with a rush of air to push me back to each downbeat. Other common groupings are 4-4-4; 3-3-3-3; and any other combinations to help you achieve fluid and precise technique.
  • Imagine the air like a burst of energy, as if you’re riding your bike up a steep hill and need more inertia to make it over the top.
  • Count your rests carefully! They are just as much a part of the music as the notes, and it would be a shame to put so much effort into all this technique to miss a simple rest.
  • Breathe before the eighth notes the measure before box 157.
  • Make sure your quarter notes and eighth notes in the measure before 157 aren’t rushed or too short.
  • Keep the fingers relaxed and avoid any tension in your body – this will just impede your technical progress.
  • This may seem counterintuitive, but resist the urge to over-practice this excerpt to avoid repetitive strain injuries. The combination of the difficult technique and awkward stretch in the hands due to the larger size of the A clarinet can add up to injury or strain if you aren’t careful.

Clarinet conundrums

No piece of music is without its various pitch discrepancies, and this piece is no exception. Take a look at the second clarinet line two measures before box 156: the lowest note is written as D-flat. This doesn’t match the earlier passages in the second clarinet part. So, which is correct – the written D-flat, or an E-flat to match what came earlier? According to the score (which usually trumps all else in music), a D-flat. I’m not fully convinced that this is correct, but I wanted to bring this to your attention so you can make your own decisions.

Fingering suggestions

*these fingering suggestions go beyond the standard excerpt, but they will be useful if you are preparing the entire part for auditions or performances

  • box 162: use the 1-1 B-flat to avoid unnecessary wrist motion. (It might seem obvious, but I’ve seen some clarinetists struggle with using normal fingerings here.)
  • box 163: After using normal high D for the downbeat of box 163, use open D and open C# throughout this passage for smoother technique.

Excerpt 3: box 212 until the end of the suite “Danse générale”

Clarinet conundrums

First things first: There are several pitch discrepancies in this excerpt (keep in mind that a good portion of this excerpt is in 5/4 meter, so the dashed barlines are to subdivide the larger measures into groups of 2 and 3):

  • measure before box 213, beat 3: According to all the basic rules of music theory, this should be a G# (since the accidental from beat one carries through the entire measure). Well, take a look at beat two in the second clarinet part – G natural! So, which is correct, G# or G natural? Most clarinetists play G# in the first clarinet part, but it’s important to note this discrepancy.
  • third measure of box 214, beat 3: This should be a D natural, even though it is marked D# earlier in the measure.
  • fourth measure of box 214, beat 3: Same as above
  • one measure before box 216, beat 1: the fourth sixteenth note should be a G# (newer editions have corrected this, but be sure to verify if you are using an older part)
  • second measure of box 216, beat 5: If we carry the accidentals throughout this measure, the notes should be C#, D#, B, C#. Once again, the second clarinet line makes things a bit more complicated – they have no sharps in this measures. If you play this as written, it would be a half step off, making this wrong. So, which part is correct? I don’t have a personal hotline to ask Ravel, so I don’t have any definitive answers, but many clarinetists have come to the consensus to play the same notes as the second clarinet (although some will play the last note of this measure as a C#).
  • fifth measure of box 221: Some editions have incorrectly written the rhythm of beat two as eighth notes, but these should be sixteenth notes. (It looks like an editor simply forgot to include the beams -tsk tsk!)

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on to the fun part:

Tempo: typical performance tempi range from ♩ = 168-176 (or faster, depending on how caffeinated your conductor is)

Practice tips

  • Start slow and don’t be in a rush to speed up the tempo. When you initially learn this excerpt, you should practice it slowly for several days or weeks to properly train your muscles. If you try to go too fast too soon, your results probably won’t stick.
  • Pay attention to the articulation. Many clarinetists are so focused on the notes and tempo that they simply overlook the articulation, especially before box 214. Make sure you are slurring and tonguing all of the notes in the proper places.
  • Pay attention to the rhythm in box 214. A lot of clarinetists are used to hearing this excerpt at break-neck speed, so when they practice it at much slower speeds, they often compress the high E pickup to beat two, making it twice as fast as written. Make sure to subdivide this beat so you enter exactly on the fourth sixteenth note.
  • Exaggerate your dynamics. Make your softs softer and your louds louder. Go beyond basic decibel levels and let the dynamics help you develop the different musical characters in this excerpt.
  • Overtone “bugle calls”  in box 215. Since high A and E share the same fingering, you might need something to help one of these notes speak. If practicing bugle calls isn’t enough to sound both distinct notes, you can use the left C# pinky key for high A and switch to the right E-flat pinky key to help bump these notes out. (You can use the opposite pinky keys if your clarinet has the left hand E-flat pinky key.) Alternatively, you can leave the pinky key off for high E.
  • Make sure you are playing box 215 in the right octave. This should be played one octave higher than written. (This might seem obvious, but many clarinetists overlook this simple detail.)
  • Emphasize the accents. Make sure the listener can distinguish which notes are accented or not. Accenting the correct pitches will also help individual notes speak better since you should be supporting the air to achieve these accents.
  • Don’t be afraid to break the rules and use fake fingerings. For example, in the third bar of box 214, we would normally hold down the E-flat pinky key on all altissimo notes except for C#. Well, these aren’t normal circumstances. Because this excerpt is so fast, you are free to omit the E-flat pinky key during this passage to avoid this awkward technical problem. You can also use trill fingerings and overtones for certain notes, such as using open C# three before box 217, or using the bottom two side keys for D-flat the measure before box 220.
  • Watch the rhythm at 220. The rhythm is more compressed than its first appearance, so make sure you are playing the correct rhythms. Speaking of rhythms, make sure you don’t come in early three measures before 221 – Ravel set us up with quick sixteenth and eighth rests in the previous bars, so many clarinetists want to enter the quarter rest early three before 221. Don’t make this mistake!
  • Trill, tremolo, or sixteenths? I hear a variety of rhythms during the final seven measures. These should be metered sixteenth notes (be careful not to lose count!).
  • Pay attention to pitch at box 221. Make sure you are using a fingering for high G# that is responsive and in tune. Since altissimo F# tends to be flat, many clarinetists try to compensate by adding the right hand sliver/banana key and keeping it down for the duration of the final seven measures…Don’t do this!! While this helps the pitch of the F#, it makes the E very sharp, so do not add the sliver/banana key for these last measures.
  • Avoid excess tension and pressure at all costs. Look, I get it – this is a stressful excerpt, but don’t let mental stress manifest itself as physical tension, otherwise your technique will suffer. Keep your body relaxed, and keep your fingers close to the keys to speed up technique.
  • A quick mental tip to increase speed: Think by phrase instead of by beat to bump up the tempo. It’s easy to get bogged down when you are thinking small-scale, so always play with forward drive, direction, and momentum, and this mental shift will produce enormous changes in musical payoff.

Fingering suggestions

  • box 214, measure 3: Don’t hold down the E-flat pinky key. In normal circumstances, you should use this key on all notes above the upper break except for C#. Well, Daphnis isn’t normal circumstances. Since this excerpt is so fast, you won’t have time to remove and re-add this key, so I play this entire measure without the E-flat pinky key.
  • one measure before box 216, beat 4: Use the bottom two side keys for D-flat
  • box 216, measure 3, beat five: use open C# (overblown bottom space F#)
  • box 217, measure 3, beat 3: same as above
  • box 219, measures 2 and 3: don’t hold down the E-flat pinky key (refer to first fingering suggestion)

And there you have it! I hope these tips help you in your preparation of one of my favorite clarinet excerpts. What tips or tricks do you have to help other clarinetists with Daphnis et Chloé?

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