Debussy, Claude - Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”

Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”
Claude Debussy
b. St. Germaine-en-Laye, France / August 22, 1862; d. Paris, France / March 25, 1918

This masterpiece of musical atmosphere heralded the emergence of Debussy’s mature style. Poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote L’après-midi d’un faune in 1876. When Debussy encountered it some 10 years later, he recognized in it a style similar to his view of music.

The words of the poem are those of a faun or satyr, a lazy, pleasure-loving half-man, half-goat creature from Classical mythology. Debussy described his musical reflection as “a very free rendering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. It does not purport to contain everything that is in the poem. It is rather a succession of scenes in which the desires and dreams of the faun pass through in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of chasing the frightened nymphs and naiads, he gives in to intoxicating sleep.”

Music as free and as sensuous as this had never been heard before. Its improvisational quality would become a Debussy trademark. Conjured out of silence by the unaccompanied call of the faun’s flute, it evokes Mallarmé’s hazy, dream-like ideas with effortless tonal magic. Short phrases melt one into the other; solo winds take the spotlight in turn; coolness alternates with passion.

Recalling the premiere (Paris, December 22, 1894), conductor Gustave Doret wrote, “There was a vast silence in the hall as I ascended the podium with some emotion, but full of confidence. I waited a long moment, after imposing silence on the audience, then our marvellous flutist Barrère unrolled his opening theme. Suddenly I felt behind my back a completely captivated public! The triumph was complete, so much so that I did not hesitate to break the rule forbidding encores. The orchestra was delighted to repeat this work, which it had come to love and which, thanks to them, the audience had now accepted.”

The grateful Mallarmé gave Debussy a copy of the poem, inscribed with a verse which may be translated as:

Oh forest god of breath primeval
If your flute be true,
Listen now to all the light
Debussy will breathe through you.

Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2019

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