Claude Debussy: Prélude á l’Aprés-midi d’un faune

 

Context

Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is a symphonic poem that was premiered in Paris 1894, conducted by Swiss conductor Gustave Doret. Translated, the title reads “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and it was based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem l’Après-midi d’un faune. This work also provided a basis for his later ballet Afternoon of a Faun which was first performed in 1912. It was also considered a turning point for art music as a genre at the time as it provided scoring that bordered on becoming modern music, as well as the music barely adhering to any sense of tonality or harmonic functions.

The original poem is fundamentally like a free-illustration of a number of scenes where the dreams of a forest faun interacting with nymphs and sharing memories is told. Nature is at the heart of this work and you can certainly hear that in the music within Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune. The piece creates a musical sound world that completely absorbs you when you listen to it.

The Music

The piece starts with a solo flute playing a whole tone descending sequence, which ends up a tritone below the original pitch. This passage has become a staple for flute players within orchestral repertoire. The purpose of this work, essentially, is to evoke thoughts and imagery from Mallarmé’s poem. Debussy does this by manipulating orchestration and distancing the music from anything functional. 

The work has no official structure, which makes it in free form. This means that the music doesn’t have any real sense of metre of time. Debussy creates his desired effects by carefully intertwining musical themes, harmonic movement and various timbres and instrument colours.

The main theme (heard from the solo flute at the beginning), is developed at length throughout the piece, with different instruments taking the theme and creating their own variation. The work is littered with chromatic harmony changes, whole tone runs – giving it that other-worldly aura – as well as compound metre changes. 

The voicing of the instruments is reflective of nature and Debussy’s lack of a tonal centre makes the work innovative and so intriguing to listen to. The main melodies are chiefly led by the woodwinds and horns, with the harps and strings playing accompaniment cells of music to support the sound world being created. This does change at some points in the piece, especially within the more climactic sections of the work. The dream-like atmosphere that is created really highlights Debussy’s highly intelligent way of stretching traditional key systems to their limits, without quite distinguishing them.

Final Thoughts

Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is a prime example of Impressionism and the turn-of-the-century music climate in France. With its advanced sound world and new conception of music as an art genre, this piece uses tonal colour, timbre blending and orchestration to communicate the musical syntax of the piece. 

 

This blog is dedicated to my friend and Debussy lover, Ben Evans.

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