CLAUDE DEBUSSY: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Achille-Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France, on August 22, 1862, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He began composing the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1892 and completed the full score on October 23, 1894. The work was performed with great success by the Société Nationale de la Musique on December 22 and 23 that year under the direction of the Swiss conductor Gustave Doret. The score calls for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, crotales, two harps, and strings.

In 1865 the poet Stéphane Mallarmé produced a “Monologue d’un faune,” with which he hoped to obtain a performance at the Comédie Française. Having been told that his work would be of no interest as a theatrical piece, he put it aside for a decade. In 1875, Mallarmé tried to get his work published as “Improvisation du faune” in a literary anthology, again without success. Finally, the following year, he brought out his first book, which contained the text of the eclogue entitled “L’Après-midi d’un faune.” Mallarmé continued to hope for a theatrical performance; as late as 1891 he promised in print to produce a new version for the theater.

Debussy had already set a Mallarmé text as early as 1884. We can be sure that poet and composer were personally acquainted by 1892, when they both attended a performance of Maeterlinck’s drama Pelléas et Mélisande, and it is certainly likely that they discussed the musical possibilities of Mallarmé’s “Faune.” Debussy began composition of the Prelude that year, along with most of the other compositions that were to occupy him for the next decade: his String Quartet, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the Nocturnes for orchestra, and a number of songs. Years later he recalled that when Mallarmé heard the music for the first time (apparently the composer’s own performance at the piano in his apartment), he commented, “I was not expecting anything of this kind! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets its scene more vividly than color.” The first performance of the Prelude made Debussy famous overnight.

The freshness comes in part from the delicacy of the instrumentation, which is filled with wonderfully new effects, of which the brilliant splash of the harp glissando over a dissonant chord at the end of the first flute phrase is only the most obvious. The careful bridging of sections, so that nothing ever quite comes to a full close without suggesting continuation, effectively blurs what is, after all, a fairly straightforward ABA form. Debussy’s success in obtaining this fluid, pastel effect can be measured by the fact that musicians still argue about where the various sections begin and end. Most listeners, though, have been content to enjoy this exquisitely wrought play of color, harmony, and misty melody without bothering to consider how much of the future was already implicit in this brief score. —© Steven Ledbetter