Though the piece was composed in the late 19th century, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is seen by no less a figure of modernism as Pierre Boulez as the beginning of modern music. If you’re interested, here is an English translation of the Mallarme poem upon which Debussy based his composition.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (L. 86), known in English as Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is a symphonic poem for orchestra by Claude Debussy, approximately 10 minutes in duration. It was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.
The composition was inspired by the poem L’après-midi d’un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy’s work later provided the basis for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. It is one of Debussy’s most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music; Pierre Boulez has said he considers the score to be the beginning of modern music, observing that “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” It is a work that barely grasps onto tonality and harmonic function.
About his composition Debussy wrote:
The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.
Paul Valéry reported that Mallarmé himself was unhappy with his poem being used as the basis for music: “He believed that his own music was sufficient, and that even with the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.”
However, Maurice Dumesnil states in his biography of Debussy that Mallarmé was enchanted by Debussy’s composition, citing a short letter from Mallarmé to Debussy that read: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”
The opening flute solo is one of the most famous passages in the orchestral repertoire, consisting of a chromatic descent to a tritone below the original pitch, and the subsequent ascent.
The work is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in A and Bb, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, two crotales and strings.
Although it is tempting to call this piece a tone poem, there is very little musical literalism in the piece; instead, the slow and mediated melody and layered orchestration as a whole evoke the eroticism of Mallarmé’s poem.
[This prelude] was [Debussy’s] musical response to the poem of Stephane Mallarmé (1842–1898), in which a faun playing his pan-pipes alone in the woods becomes aroused by passing nymphs and naiads, pursues them unsuccessfully, then wearily abandons himself to a sleep filled with visions. Though called a “prelude,” the work is nevertheless complete – an evocation of the feelings of the poem as a whole.
The Prélude at first listening seems improvisational and almost free-form; however, closer observation will demonstrate that the piece consists of a complex organization of musical cells, motifs carefully developed and traded between members of the orchestra. A close analysis of the piece reveals a high amount of consciousness of composition on Debussy’s part.
The main musical themes are introduced by woodwinds, with delicate but harmonically advanced underpinnings of muted horns, strings and harp. Recurring tools in Debussy’s compositional arsenal make appearances in this piece: extended whole-tone scale runs, harmonic fluidity without lengthymodulations between central keys, and tritones in both melody and harmony. The development of the slow main theme transitions smoothly between 9/8, 6/8, and 12/8 meters. Debussy enacts voicings and shading in his orchestration to a high degree, allowing the main melodic cell to move from solo flute tooboe, back to solo flute, then two unison flutes (yielding a completely different atmosphere to the melody), then clarinet, etc. Even the accompanimentexplores alternate voicings; the flute duo’s crescendo during their melodic cells accompany legato strings with violas carrying the soprano part over alto violins (the tone of a viola in its upper register being especially pronounced).