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Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Xian Zhang, conductor / Gil Shaham, violin, plays Prokofiev Nov. 4 - 7, 2010
© Peter Laki

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was one of the greatest innovators in the history of French poetry. His works, which abound in complex symbols and images, seek to represent states of mind rather than ideas, express moods rather than tell stories. Mallarmé tried to capture that elusive line between dream and awakening that most of us who are not poets are well aware of but are unable to put into words.

Mallarmé's eclogue L'Après-midi d'un Faune ("The Afternoon of a Faun") was published in 1876.Debussy first set a poem by Mallarmé to music in 1884, at the age of 22. Three years later, the young composer joined the circle of poets and artists who met at Mallarmé's house every Tuesday night for discussions and companionship.Thus he was thoroughly familiar with the poet's style before he began work on his prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" in 1892.

The first-person narrator in the eclogue (the word evokes associations with the pastoral poetry of the great Latin poet Virgil) is a faun, a mythological creature who is half man and half goat. The faun lives in the woods, near a river surrounded by reedy marshes; he is daydreaming about nymphs who may be real or mere figments of his imagination.The faun's desire is filtered through the vagueness of its object as he recalls past dreams, which emerge from the shadows only to recede into the darkness again.

The faun plays a flute, which evokes the syrinx (the Greek panpipe)∗; and it is quite natural that in Debussy's music the orchestral flute is given a solo part throughout. The languid opening melody, which descends, mostly in half-steps, from C-sharp to G natural and rises back to C-sharp again (thus outlining the exotic interval of the tritone, or augmented fourth), has become famous as anexample of a melodic style independent from any traditional models. As it unfolds, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more and more intense. After a short resting point, a new section starts in which the first clarinet and the first oboe temporarily take over the lead from the flute; the tempo becomes more and more animated and finally a new melody is introduced, in sharp contrast with the chromatic flute theme that opened the piece. The new melody moves in wide intervals, and is played by all the woodwinds, plus the first horn, in unison.Finally, the first theme returns in its original tempo; following a passage that briefly brings back some of the agitation of the middle section, the music settles into a serene and peaceful idyll which prevails to the end.

In his music, Debussy admirably captured that delicious vagueness of contours which is so important in the poem. The themes do not follow any stable metric patterns, and instead of progressing in a certain direction, they remain entirely unpredictable, reflecting the unconstrained nature of the faun's meditations.

Two aspects of Debussy's style bear special mention here: his use of chromaticism and his handling of orchestral color. Chromaticism had been one of the main musical means to express sensuality at least since Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a work that exerted a decisive influence on the young Debussy. But Debussy's use of chromaticism is more subdued and less goal-oriented than Wagner's. His instrumentation, much more restricted than Wagner's (no brass except horns, no percussion except the soft-toned antique cymbals) causes us to perceive the faun's sensuality at a certain remove. Mallarmé referred to the faun's syrinx as an "instrument des fuites" (translated as "elusive instrument"; literally, perhaps, "instrument of evasion"); with his novel rhythmic and harmonic language, Debussy managed to render that elusive/evasive quality of the faun's self-expression.

There have been attempts at showing more concrete correspondances between poetic and musical themes, but perhaps the essential link is in the general mood, which, in any case, is the real theme of the poem.

∗ Debussy was to write a piece for unaccompanied flute under the title Flûte de Pan in 1913, planned as part of an incidental music; the piece was published as Syrinx after Debussy's death.