Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element of a beloved piece in the repertoire to use as a port of entry. Today we’re looking at the iconic opening measures of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, an exquisite orchestral exploration inspired by Mallarmé’s Symbolist poem…
Next time you listen to Debussy’s L’après-midi d’une faune, pay extra close attention to the languid theme that kicks everything off. Initially presented as a flute solo, the theme comes back again and again throughout the piece as Debussy plies its contours, stretching it to fit new rhythmic and melodic heights. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start by listening to it:
In just four measures, Debussy sets the tone for a richly symbolic work with deep ties to the poem that inspired it. Debussy was close with Mallarmé and for several years leading up to the composition of the Prélude had joined a group of influential figures of the symbolist movement for weekly meetings held at Mallarmé’s home on Tuesday evenings. His choice of instrumentation alone shows his familiarity with the poem: Mallarmé’s faun plays a panpipe and references Syrinx, a nymph from Greek mythology who was transformed into the water reeds Pan used to make his instrument.
The amorphous structure of the theme is interesting as well: the line descends chromatically a tritone—a loaded interval dubbed “the devil in music” a few centuries ago—before ascending, then falling and rising again. Just as Mallarmé’s faun descends into a hazy, dream-like state, Debussy’s feels almost improvisatory or ambiguous. This mood is threaded throughout the rest of the piece, too, as Debussy reworks small fragments of this theme and other material in different ways, playing with our expectations of where we might expect melodies and harmonies to traditionally lead us.
“There was a vast silence in the hall as I ascended to the podium and our splendid flutist, Barrère, unfolded his opening line. All at once I felt behind me, as some conductors can, an audience that was totally spellbound. It was a complete triumph, and I had no hesitation in breaking the rule forbidding encores.” —Gustave Doret, the young conductor who premiered the piece (excerpt from his memoirs, Temps et contretemps, 1942)
The theme comes back several times in the fifteen-minute piece, sometimes in a similar form to the opening measures, other times not. Here’s an example from about a quarter of the way through. The theme is still in the flute, but this time it’s supported first by glittering harp and lush swells in the strings. Listen to how Debussy plays with the rhythm (spending a little longer on the top and bottom notes) and how he embellishes the melody (hear those added quick bursts of notes?) to make it feel even more improvisatory than before.
Feels different, doesn’t it? As you listen to the whole piece, try paying attention to how Debussy plays with the theme in different ways each time it comes back. Or just let the dream-like atmosphere wash over you… or pretend you’re a faun on a hazy summer afternoon. You do you.
February 23rd, 2019, noon EST
1972. Leopold Stokowski (age 90 years old!) leads the London Symphony Orchestra play Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8.