About this Piece
Claude Debussy came of age as a composer during a particularly rich period in French cultural history. Around 1887, the 25-year-old composer began attending the now legendary Tuesday evening soirées at the apartment of his friend the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Regular guests included the sculptor Rodin, the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, the poets Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry, and writers like André Gide and Marcel Proust. These associations had a lasting influence on Debussy’s music. His works were very much shaped by the innovations in visual arts and literature of the time—a period when formal structure took a back seat to mood, atmosphere, and color.
It was perhaps Mallarmé himself who exercised the greatest influence on his young protégé. Debussy was quite taken with Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun, a dreamy epic poem written in 1876, inspired by a pastoral play entitled Diane of the Forest by Theodore de Banville. The elaborately constructed poem itself is a rhapsodic monologue from the point of view of a faun, that half-man, half-goat creature from mythology. In a Mediterranean valley of yore, the faun awakens from a nap in the forest on a sunlit afternoon. He tries desperately to remember a dream—or was it a real encounter?—with a pair of amorous nymphs. As the afternoon grows warmer, the faun becomes drowsier, and finally drops off to sleep, hoping to meet his elusive consorts in his dreams.
In the complex structure of Mallarmé’s poem, “an extreme sensuality, an extreme intellectuality, and an extreme musicality are combined, intermingled, and opposed,” as fellow poet Paul Valéry put it. Mallarmé’s philosophy was to suggest rather than to name objects. The hazy ambiguity of the poet’s words is magically mirrored in the fluid rhythms and tonal ambiguities of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, composed during the years 1892–94. In describing the Prélude as a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s poem, Debussy said that his music sought to evoke “the successive scenes in which the longings and the desires of the faun pass in the heat of the afternoon.”
As the piece opens, the faun’s flute softly intones the languorously syncopated principal motif, consisting of scalewise passages, chromaticized within the range of three whole tones. Muted horns and soft harp glissandos answer. The emphasis is on the tritone, that most ambiguous of intervals. All these elements play a part in re-creating the dream-like atmosphere of Mallarmé’s poem. The principal theme then passes through various instrumental colors while tremolando strings create a backdrop of slumbrous noontime haze.
After a second and third subject are introduced by the woodwinds, the piece slowly builds to a climax. The first theme then returns, more languorous than ever. Eventually, a solo cello, then an oboe, join the flute, as horns, violins, and woodwinds weave an enchanted close, colored by repeated phrases for harp and the bell-like tone of antique cymbals, punctuated by a pair of low, whispering pizzicato strokes.
This quietly sensual score sparked a musical revolution when it appeared more than a century, on December 22, 1894, at a National Society of Music concert in Paris. Every aspect of this exquisitely wrought music of fragile beauty went against every 19th-century trend in music, from Beethoven to Wagner. A new fluidity of form was one of Debussy’s great contributions to modern music. In addition, the significant role that Debussy granted to instrumental color in his Prélude set it apart from all previous orchestral scores. As Pierre Boulez aptly noted, “The flute of Debussy’s Faune breathed new air into the art of music.” —Kathy Henkel