Claude Debussy ‘Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune’: Contained in a Dream

Claude Debussy – what a wonderful composer! An artist of true musical beauty and complexity. Debussy, perhaps is most well-known for his piano works, so instead I am writing this blog on one of his orchestral works so you can experience a different side to his compositional offerings. Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is a symphonic poem that was premiered in Paris 1894, which was 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 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, and Debussy does this by manipulating orchestration and distancing the music from anything functional, thus making it much more accessible for people to have their own creative thoughts on the music. I won’t be analysing this piece as much as others, as I do feel its up to the listener to interpret as they wish, and sometimes over-analysing something takes the beauty out of it. However, an interesting part of this piece is the idea of it nearly being in complete free-form, so without any real sense of metre or time. Now upon listening this may be the case, however, once one brings a score into the mix you realise it is an amalgamation of highly complex musical themes carefully intertwined together to create this very balanced feel and atmosphere within the work.

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 (which make it sound very other-worldly!) and metre changes (chiefly between the 9/8, 12/8 and 6/8). The voicing of the instruments is incredibly 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.

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 (even if it is rather hazy!). Debussy is a composer to be admired no end, as his work is so fundamental to that of music eras soon to come (for instance minimalism and impressionism). I do hope you enjoy this piece of music, let it take you away to that special dream world you have!

This Debussy blog is dedicated to my close friend Ben Evans, who I know is a massive lover of Debussy and his music. I hope this blog reaches you in good stead and you enjoy another instalment of Debussy!

Recommended recordings –

L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal – Charles Édouard Dutoit – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYyK922PsUw