Debussy Composes Prelude a Lapres-Midi Dun Faune - History

Debussy Composes Prelude a Lapres-Midi Dun Faune - History

Claude Debussy, French Impressionist composer, composes Prelude a lapres-midi dun faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) for orchestra, based on a poem by French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme.

Debussy - Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Debussy's beautiful symphonic poem was first performed in 1894 – and it's since become one of the most popular pieces of all time. Here's how it came into being.

The enigmatic name of this piece comes from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé &ndash The Afternoon of a Faun. Claude Debussy originally intended to write a set of three pieces to include an Interlude and a Paraphrase finale.

But in the end, for reasons best known to himself, Debussy decided to combine all his thoughts on the poem to just one single movement. The composer was 32 years old when he wrote it and it was 18 years later that it was adapted into a ballet, when Vaslav Nijinsky danced to it in Diaghilev&rsquos Ballets Russes production in Paris.

The music itself tells the tale of the mythical faun, playing his pipes alone in the woods. He is enchanted by nymphs and naiads and drifts off to sleep filled with colourful dreams. From the dreamy opening flute tune, the sleepy calm of an afternoon in the forest is evoked through smooth melodies and almost improvisatory passages.

This piece was a big turning point in music. Debussy stretched the traditional system of keys and tonalities to their limits. Leonard Bernstein, Boulez and many more great musicians have been inspired by Prélude à l&rsquoaprès-midi d&rsquoun faune.

A costume design for 'L'après-midi d'un faune'. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty


Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un Faun - Listening Guide

Claude Debussy stands as one of the most important figure in music as it grew from the Romantic Period of the late 19th Century into the progressive musical styles of the 20th Century. While he disdained the use of the term as applied to his music, Debussy was the preeminent composer of Impressionist music and Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un Faun is one of the finest, and most well-known examples of Debussy’s early forays into that form.

Debussy was trained at the Paris Conservatoire in the classical style. He, however, felt stifled by the rigid application of form advocated by the musical establishment of the day. While his instructors considered his approach to composition rebellious, Debussy considered it more of an evolution.

After several frustrating ventures in the musical mainstream of Europe, Debussy settled back in Paris and began associating with poets and writers associated with the Symbolist movement. Symbolism was an outgrowth of French literature of the mid- to late-19th Century and served as a rebellion against realism. While the genesis of Symbolism was in the poetry of Charles Beaudelaire, Stephane Mallerme was the poet most closely associated with Symbolism as it developed in the coffee houses of Paris in the 1880s.

Debussy felt attracted to the ideals of the Symbolists and endeavored to find a way to incorporate them into his composition. This presented some serious challenges because symbolism can be fairly apparent in the written word, but is more difficult to convey in music. He ultimately became discouraged by the Symbolists’ idolatry of Wagner, feeling that Wagner’s music did not provide enough of an avenue for musical departure and growth.

He began associating with artists who belonged to the Impressionist school, as well as searching for inspiration in other areas. He found his inspiration at the 1894 World Exposition when he first heard Javanese Gamelan music. While Gamelan groups contain strings and woodwinds, they are most known for their percussion instruments and the complex rhythms of the music. These rhythms, as well as the tonality of Gamelan music, appealed to Debussy and his compositions began to reflect his fascination with this genre.

Debussy still considered himself a Symbolist, feeling that the Impressionist label that had been attached to his music failed to capture the true nature of his compositions. He began to experiment with ways of communicating symbolism through music, both audibly and inaudibly. He composed the Prelude at a time when he had first begun to experiment with Symbolism in his music.

Debussy, interestingly enough, wrote this piece shortly before being exposed to one of his most significant musical influences, the Javanese Gamelan music. Debussy based the Prelude on a poem by Stephane Mallerme entitled L’apres-midi d’un Faun. The poem is about a faun who, after awaking from a nap, discusses his sensual dreams with several nymphs. The poem is considered by many to be one of the greatest poems in French literature, and one of the greatest examples of Symbolism in literature.

Debussy admired Mallerme and wanted to collaborate with him in setting the poem to music. He initially conceived of a three movement piece, something of a Symbolist symphony, comprised of a Prelude, an Interlude, and a Paraphrase finale. He only completed the first of the three movements, though.

The piece was premiered in 1894 and was met with much criticism. Music critics felt that the piece was too “formless” and lacked tonal unity. This is an unfair criticism, though, because the piece does have an identifiable form. That form is just not presented in an obvious manner, as it had been during earlier musical periods. In the years since its premiere, though, it has captured the imagination of countless music lovers and elevated Debussy into the ranks of the pioneers of the past like Dufay, Josquin, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner.

Prelude begins with a solo flute playing a very rhythmically loose melody, intended to represent the pan flute of the faun. The woodwinds then enter with a Wagnerian chord as the first horn floats above the woodwind choir to assume the lead. The faun returns with a reprise of the opening three measures, passing the melody off to the horns again. This section includes extreme chromaticism, hinting strongly at Wagner’s infamous Tristan chords at several points.

This section, in many ways, feels something like a prelude to the main A section of the piece, which involves the melody handed off between the flutes and clarinets beginning at rehearsal number 3. This conversation, between the faun and a nymph, continues between oboes and strings as the story progresses. This leads into a brief coda beginning with the strings playing descending quarter notes leading into the next section.

The B section is also comprised of a conversation between the flutes and other woodwinds, a leitmotif of the entire piece. The B section melody is later picked up by the violins, concluding with a beautiful duet between a solo violin and horn before the faun returns to restate a slower version of his theme as a transition into the next section.

The C section begins with a light, airy tune in the oboe. It is interrupted by a return to the faun’s theme, this time again heard in the oboes. This practice serves to mark the phrases, but also serves as a clever transition back into the final restatement of the faun’s theme in the flutes. When the flute entered in the first bar, it was in a character containing both the energy of waking up refreshed with the torpor of freshly rising from sleep. This statement of the faun’s theme seems a winding down as slumber returns to claim the faun.

The piece concludes with a brief Coda, signaled by the violins playing descending quarter notes, as in the first Transition. A solo oboe sounds after the violins, leading into the final few bars, slowly hinting at the faun’s theme before drifting off into a somnolent cadence, then silence.


Middle period

As a holder of the Grand Prix de Rome, Debussy was given a three-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, where, under what were supposed to be ideal conditions, he was to pursue his creative work. Most composers who were granted this state scholarship, however, found life in this magnificent Renaissance palace irksome and longed to return to simpler and more familiar surroundings. Debussy himself eventually fled from the Villa Medici after two years and returned to Blanche Vasnier in Paris. Several other women, some of doubtful reputation, were also associated with him in his early years. At this time Debussy lived a life of extreme indulgence. Once one of his mistresses, Gabrielle (“Gaby”) Dupont, threatened suicide. His first wife, Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier, a dressmaker, whom he married in 1899, did in fact shoot herself, though not fatally, and, as is sometimes the case with artists of passionate intensity, Debussy himself was haunted by thoughts of suicide.

The main musical influence in Debussy’s work was the work of Richard Wagner and the Russian composers Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. Wagner fulfilled the sensuous ambitions not only of composers but also of the Symbolist poets and the Impressionist painters. Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) encouraged artists to refine upon their emotional responses and to exteriorize their hidden dream states, often in a shadowy, incomplete form hence the more tenuous nature of the work of Wagner’s French disciples. It was in this spirit that Debussy wrote the symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). Other early works by Debussy show his affinity with the English Pre-Raphaelite painters the most notable of these works is La Damoiselle élue (1888), based on “The Blessed Damozel” (1850), a poem by the English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the course of his career, however, which covered only 25 years, Debussy was constantly breaking new ground. Explorations, he maintained, were the essence of music they were his musical bread and wine. His single completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed in 1902), demonstrates how the Wagnerian technique could be adapted to portray subjects like the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera who were doomed to self-destruction. Debussy and his librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, declared that they were haunted in this work by the terrifying nightmare tale of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. The style of Pelléas was to be replaced by a bolder, more highly coloured manner. In his seascape La Mer (1905) he was inspired by the ideas of the English painter J.M.W. Turner and the French painter Claude Monet. In his work, as in his personal life, he was anxious to gather experience from every region that the imaginative mind could explore.


Small's World

The following is an analysis of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après – midi d’un faune the essay satisfied a requirement in my graduate level Analytical Techniques class. I welcome those who choose to adequately cite my analysis, but plagiarism does you a disservice take the time to do your own research.

Prélude à l’après – midi d’un faune

Matthew Brown, author of the journal article Tonality and Form in Debussy’s “Prelude à ‘L’après – midi d’un faune’” writes “It is hard to imagine a single work that captures the spirit of Debussy’s style more obviously than the Prelude à ‘L’après – midi d’un faune.”[1] Though intended to be a part of a larger work [the poems author, Mallarme, contacted Debussy and “asked him to write a musical contribution to a theater project (never realized) centered on the poem”][2], its significance is recognized. The prelude is symbolic not only for the composer, but for the genre of Impressionist music. It premiered in “December of 1894,”[3] and its significance stands as a shift away from both common practice and Wagnerian – ism, an idea which grew as the Romantic era and 19 th century ended and 20 th century musical ideas grew.

Impressionism

The term Impressionism began around the middle of the 18 th century. Jann Passler, author of the Grove article on Impressionism writes, “The oldest and in some ways, the most important comes from Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, in which he describes an impression as the immediate effect of hearing, seeing or feeling on the mind. The word entered discussions about art in the 1860s, (but) the word impressionism did not appear in conjunction with a specific musical aesthetic until the 1880s. Perhaps referring to the Pièces pittoresques of Chabrier… Renoir spoke to Wagner of the ‘Impressionist in music.’ More importantly for historians, the secretary of the Académie des Beaux Arts used the word to attack Debussy’s ‘envoi’ from Rome, Printemps (Passler, 1).”[4] The term would garner several meanings through the worlds of art and music, as well as social and political associations. But it’s Debussy who’s first thought of when we mention Impressionism in music. As argued by Christopher Palmer, author of the 1973 book Impressionism in Music, Debussy was the “first to translate impressionist theories into music (Palmer).”[5]

The first and most obvious theme of the piece starts at the beginning: the C# 5 on flute in measure 1. The phrase itself is deceptive, not in the cadential sense, but aurally. Brown writes, “Few passages in the standard repertory are more obscure than the opening of the Prelude.”[6] The listener is given no immediate confirmation of the indicated E – Major key. Perhaps the opening C# is indicative of the relative minor—C#—but to the ear, the C# sounds major, not minor. Could Debussy have used the parallel of the indicated minor? Maybe, but maybe not. The appearance of the quarter note E 5 is what establishes the key, E – Major, and marks a stopping point for the phrase. This theme will reappear throughout the work, and is symbolic of the Faune in relation to the poem. The first reoccurrence of the Faune theme takes place at measure 11. Here, the established key sounds like D – Major until the E – Chord appears in measure 13. At measure 21, the theme makes another appearance, but is different than previous appearances. From measures 21 – 30, the Faune theme is unsettled. There is some parallelism, and combined with the chromatic Faune theme, the music creates the imagery of a whirlwind (in relation to the earlier mentioned origin of the term Impressionism). The cyclic feel will continue until the B – Major chord in measure 30. The chord (to my ear) marks not only a cadence point, but an end to the “A” section of the piece.

If the prelude could be thought of as somewhat a ternary form (ABA), measure 31 would begin the “B” Section (to me). Beginning in this area, Debussy has made several non-traditional music choices. Several chords include “flat – fifths,” such as a C#7 b5 in m. 32, and a B b 7 b5 in m. 34. Before that, there is a whole – tone sequence in m. 32-33 and again in m. 35. Throughout this area, the theme of the Faun is echoed. A sub – section of the “B” begins at m. 37: the En animant marking. There are some dominant chords, but also some pentatonic activity. Some key changes occur: m. 44 – 50 with no key signature (C – Major/a – minor), and a decision to move to A b – Major in m. 51 – 54. The short appearance of the latter makes it strange to think an indicated key change was necessary interestingly, this area is more relative to the indicated key than the preceding sub – section of the “B” area.

Arriving at m. 55, we reach the climax of the piece. Here begins another definite tonic section, Db – Major, which Debussy teased the listener with at m. 46. Matthew Brown’s analysis places m. 55 as the start of the “B” section and labels m. 31 – 36 as a “whole – tone episode” and m. 37 – 54 as a transition. I would argue m. 31 – 54 are, too, part of the “B” section—each being it’s own sub – section— and m. 55 – 78 would be the climactic peak of the development. If I am to agree with the “B” section beginning at m. 55 and ending at 78, I would have to say m. 31 – 54 are also not part of any “A” section and serves its own purpose of moving us to new musical territory.

The “A” section makes a return at m. 79 as A’. Debussy then teases the listener by reiterating the initial theme in a clever way. Measure 79 brings back not only the Faune theme, but the initial key of E – Major and the E- Major chord in the same measure. Something unique, however, takes place from m. 79 – 93. Within these measures lie two subsections: the first being m. 79 – 85 and the second from 86 – 93. The subsections have the following chordal progression:

Whether intended or not, the second subsection—m. 86 – 93—is a transposition, one half – step lower than the first subsection, m. 79 – 85. Also, note the Faun theme moves to the oboe in m. 83 – 84, and to the English Horn in m. 90. All of this serves as movement and uncertainty until our next arrival point: m. 94.

At m. 94 are indicators of the return of the A – section:

  1. The key signature
  2. The return of the Faun in the flutes, and
  3. Debussy’s note of “dans le 1 er …”

The section continues in E – Major until the close at m. 110, though Brown recognizes that m. 106 – 110 as a coda. It is important to note that my analysis was not based on Brown’s but Brown’s analysis was used to compare and contrast ideas of sections, subsections and arrival points.

Austin, William, ed. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun: Norton Critical Series. New York: Norton, 1970

Brown, Matthew. Tonality and Form in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après – midi d’un faune. Music Theory Spectrum. Vo. 15, no. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 127 – 143. Oxford University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/745811

Day – O’Connell. Debussy, Pentatonicism, and the Tonal Tradition. Music Theory Spectrum. Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 225 – 261. Oxford University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2009.31.2.225

Lesure, François and Roy Howat. “Debussy, Claude.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/07353.

Palmer, Christopher. Impressionism In Music. London: Hutchingson,1973

Pasler, Jann . “Impressionism.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 8, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/50026

[5] Palmer is the author of the original comment, but the quote is used in Passler’s definition of Impressionism, p. 1


Debussy - Orchestral Music

George Pieterson (clarinet), Vera Badings (harp)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

  • Catalogue No: 4387422
  • Label: Decca
  • Series: Duo
  • Length: 2 hours 19 minutes

Awards:

Gramophone Magazine, 100 Greatest Recordings

2 CDs

Usually despatched within 1 working day


Program Notes

THE BACKSTORY Claude Debussy achieved his musical maturity in the final decade of the nineteenth century. It was a magical moment in France, when partisans of the visual arts fully embraced the gentle luster of Impressionism, when poets navigated the indirect locutions of Symbolism, when composers struggled with the pluses and minuses of Wagner, and when the City of Light blazed even more brightly than usual, enflamed with the pleasures of the Belle Époque.

Several early Debussy masterpieces of the nineties have stuck forcefully in the enduring repertory, including, most strikingly, Prélude à L&rsquoAprès-midi d&rsquoun faune (Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun), completed in 1894. Debussy was hardly a youngster when he composed it. He had begun studying at the Paris Conservatory in 1872, when he was only ten had served as resident pianist and musical pet for Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky&rsquos mysterious patroness, in Russia and in her travels during the summers of 1880-82 had finally gained the imprimatur of the Prix de Rome in 1884 (for his cantata L&rsquoEnfant prodigue), enabling him to spend the next two years in Italy had inhaled the Wagnerian breezes of Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889 had grown enamored of the sounds of the Javanese gamelan at the Paris International Exposition of 1889 and had composed a great many songs and piano pieces. While helping define the composer&rsquos distinctive voice, these early works baffled many listeners. Of the Prélude à L&rsquoAprès-midi d&rsquoun faune Debussy&rsquos fellow composer Alfred Bruneau wrote &ldquo[It] is one of the most exquisite instrumental fantasies which the young French school has produced. This work is too exquisite, alas! it is too exquisite.&rdquo

Even at the distance of more than a century, listeners can appreciate Bruneau&rsquos concern. The Debussy of the 1890s sometimes seems so obsessed with minute details of timbre that everything can threaten to implode into a mass of sensual loveliness. The composer&rsquos eventual style was not to display the sort of firm, unmistakable architecture that most composers up until that time had cherished. His method would evolve into something more intuitive, with themes that invite little development, with harmonies inspiring momentary excitement rather than underscoring long trajectory. Although he is sometimes called a musical Impressionist, his aesthetic affinities would seem to be more allied to the Symbolists, those poets and artists of the late-nineteenth century who disdained the purely expository or representational and sought instead to evoke a specific, fleeting emotional illumination in the reader or viewer through sometimes mysterious metaphors.

One of those poets was Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem L&rsquoAprès-midi d&rsquoun faune (penned in 1865 and revised a decade hence) is a feast of transcendence. Mallarmé&rsquos poem&mdashwhich he called an eclogue&mdashwas published in a most elegantly produced little book with a drawing by Manet. This seemed to make next to no impact, but J.K. Huysmans mentioned the poem enthusiastically in À Rebours (Against the Grain), an influential novel, published in 1884 and dubbed &ldquothe breviary of decadence.&rdquo Suddenly everyone was curious about Mallarmé and L&rsquoAprès-midi d&rsquoun faune, enough so for the poem to be republished with wider circulation in the Revue indépendante. It was then that Debussy saw the poem he was to make so famous and which indeed was to be so significant in establishing his own renown.

THE MUSIC Debussy responds to Mallarmé&rsquos voluptuousness in kind, reinventing the flute (that pours water &ldquointo chord-besprinkled thickets&rdquo), reinventing the orchestra, finding new harmonies, new rhythms, new ways of ordering events. No one had ever heard a beginning like this one, with these four subtly varied proposals of one melody, at once so sensual and so incorporeal.

Paul Dukas, to whom Debussy had given a copy of Mallarmé&rsquos poem in 1887, was especially struck by the music&rsquos lucidity. Having occasion in 1901 to review his friend&rsquos Nocturnes, Dukas reflected:

Whether he collaborates with Baudelaire, Verlaine, or Mallarmé, or draws from his own resources the subject of his works, [M. Debussy] shows above all his concern to avoid what might be called the direct translation of feelings. What attracts him in the poets we have just mentioned is precisely their art of transposing everything into symbolic pictures, of making multiple resonances vibrate under one word. Now M. Debussy&rsquos music does not seize upon the evocative meaning of these poems in the manner of ordinary music. His effort seems to be to note the most distant harmonics of the verse and to take possession of all the suggestions of the text in order to transport them to the realm of musical expression. Most of his compositions are thus symbols of symbols, but expressed in a language itself so rich, so persuasive, that it sometimes reaches the eloquence of a new word, carrying its own law within it, and often much more intelligible than that of the poems on which it comments. Such is the case, for example, with L&rsquoAprès-midi d&rsquoun faune.

Perhaps Mallarmé himself said it even better. After the first concert performance of Prélude, which he had already heard with astonished pleasure when Debussy played it for him on the piano, he sent to the composer a copy of the poem, inscribed with these lines: &ldquoSylvan spirit, if with your primal breath/Your flute sounds well,/ Hear now the radiance/When Debussy plays.&rdquo&mdashMichael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony&rsquos Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation&rsquos pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The final result was music without precedence: its melodies – with a faintly Eastern cast – strange and undeveloped, its harmonies elusive, its tonalities ambiguous. Its musical syntax, like none before, was one that would profoundly affect composers of the following century.

Mallarmé’s poem relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half man, half animal – of seducing two sleeping nymphs. Debussy suggests – never merely translates – Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods.

Composed: 1894
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 20, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Where Beethoven, with his “Eroica” Symphony, and Stravinsky, with Le sacre du printemps, violently toppled the walls of the reigning conventions with their musical thunderbolts, Claude Debussy, in 1894, rent the walls asunder, too – but with a breath and a sigh.

The inspiration for Debussy’s quiet revolution was a poem by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) inspired in turn by a François Boucher (1703-1770) painting in the National Gallery in London. The final result was music of unprecedentedly hazy, shimmeringly suggestive lasciviousness, its melodies – with a faintly Eastern cast – strange and undeveloped, its harmonies elusive, its tonalities ambiguous. Its musical syntax, like none before, was one that would profoundly affect composers of the following century. Pierre Boulez observed, “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself… the reservoir of youth in that score defies depletion and exhaustion.”

Mallarmé’s poem relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half man, half animal – of seducing two sleeping nymphs. With a transparent tonal language dominated by flute, woodwinds, and cellos that waxes and wanes, Debussy suggests – never merely translates – Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods.

In his Afternoon of a Faun Debussy composed not only a staple of the modern (as distinct from the Romantic) repertoire, but also advanced, quietly, a revolution in sound and form that would introduce a new conception of music, with nuances of sound, color, and chords and a completely unschematic form (which can best be understood as a layering of several kinds of form), as well as new ways of using individual instruments, and the transparency of the orchestral writing. All of this so impressed – rather than shocked – the audience at the premiere in Paris in December of 1894 under Gustav Doret that they insisted the work be repeated immediately.


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

The final result was music without precedence: its melodies – with a faintly Eastern cast – strange and undeveloped, its harmonies elusive, its tonalities ambiguous. Its musical syntax, like none before, was one that would profoundly affect composers of the following century.

Mallarmé’s poem relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half man, half animal – of seducing two sleeping nymphs. Debussy suggests – never merely translates – Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods.

Composed: 1894
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 20, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Where Beethoven, with his “Eroica” Symphony, and Stravinsky, with Le sacre du printemps, violently toppled the walls of the reigning conventions with their musical thunderbolts, Claude Debussy, in 1894, rent the walls asunder, too – but with a breath and a sigh.

The inspiration for Debussy’s quiet revolution was a poem by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) inspired in turn by a François Boucher (1703-1770) painting in the National Gallery in London. The final result was music of unprecedentedly hazy, shimmeringly suggestive lasciviousness, its melodies – with a faintly Eastern cast – strange and undeveloped, its harmonies elusive, its tonalities ambiguous. Its musical syntax, like none before, was one that would profoundly affect composers of the following century. Pierre Boulez observed, “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself… the reservoir of youth in that score defies depletion and exhaustion.”

Mallarmé’s poem relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half man, half animal – of seducing two sleeping nymphs. With a transparent tonal language dominated by flute, woodwinds, and cellos that waxes and wanes, Debussy suggests – never merely translates – Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods.

In his Afternoon of a Faun Debussy composed not only a staple of the modern (as distinct from the Romantic) repertoire, but also advanced, quietly, a revolution in sound and form that would introduce a new conception of music, with nuances of sound, color, and chords and a completely unschematic form (which can best be understood as a layering of several kinds of form), as well as new ways of using individual instruments, and the transparency of the orchestral writing. All of this so impressed – rather than shocked – the audience at the premiere in Paris in December of 1894 under Gustav Doret that they insisted the work be repeated immediately.


Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

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Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, French Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, tone poem for orchestra by Claude Debussy. The original orchestral version was completed in 1894, and Debussy reworked it for performance on two pianos in 1895. The work is considered a quintessential example of musical Impressionism, a compositional style popular at the turn of the 20th century that was influenced by the artistic school of the same name.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a musical evocation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a faun—a half-man, half-goat creature of ancient Greek legend—awakes to revel in sensuous memories of forest nymphs.

Debussy begins with a sinuous flute melody evocative of a graceful female form. Gently swelling phrases for strings, harp, and horns are soon added. The music proceeds without abrupt shifts themes blend into each other, slowly rising and falling. The middle section features clarinet and oboe solos before the flute gradually retakes the spotlight. In the final moments, airy touches of percussion from finger cymbals are heard.


Watch the video: Episode 9: Claude Debussy, Prélude à lAprès-midi dun Faune