Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

JUly COMPOSER: claude debussy

Claude Debussy

Prelude to the afternoon of a faun 1894

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is possibly Debussy’s most famous piece. It’s  hailed as ground-breaking — some claiming it as a historical turning point for music. The flute solo that ushers in the piece has no recognisable key and an ambiguous interval structure, clearly displaying Debussy’s unusual compositional techniques. This makes it sound like it should sound dissonant or wrong and it did to many audiences at the time. Debussy’s compositions influenced many future composers and these days these sounds are as familiar as birdsong. To me, at least, it is richly melodic and full.

faun, half goat half manPrelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Afternoon of a Faun, about a mythical half-man, half-goat creature and some naked nymphs. This 10 minute symphonic poem begins and ends with a flute solo, the story circle nicely complete. It’s composed for a small orchestra which was also contrary to other compositions of the times.

Watch Leonard Bernstein conduct

It’s hard to get the image of naked nymphs and halfing creatures out of my head while listening to this. But a comment on youtube prompted another intense imagery. This piece has the sense of flying about it. Floating up above the treetops on a warm languid summers evening.

bluebells in woods

Flying over the woods with hands outstretched gently brushing the leaves of the trees as you pass. Swooping down into a hollow and circling a pond, then following a stream for a while, diving down low so that your nose touches the water with a kiss. You’re not apart or separate from the woods, but part of them. In a clearing you  come down to the earth  finally, elated but exhausted, and some naked nymphsand fauns frolic around you. (Sorry just couldn’t get past them).

ballet dancer nureyev as faunAll of the other pieces of Debussy’s I have looked at have been triptychs, pieces made up of 3 movements. Prelude of the Afternoon of a Faun is short, intense and somewhat fleeting. A good way to introduce a strictly classical listening world to a new sound. The poem is it based on was revolutionary and startlingly original in its time. Both the poem and the composition led to a ballet, by Nijinksy which also attracted outrage and consternation of the type ‘this is not art.’ (Check out Lady Fanciful’s blog, she has an insightful breakdown of these art works).

Oboe with sheet musicHowever, as with many things, what was once outrageous and unusual has now become swallowed into the norm. If Debussy were alive today I wonder what he would make of our modern music? Would we find him at house raves, in mosh pits or line dancing? Would he enjoy the soundtrack to Star Wars, ET and Harry Potter? But mostly I wonder what he would make of the long line of musical score connecting himself back then with us today.

*images in order of appearance courtesy of Public Domain, Pearson Scott Foresman via Public Domain, Jim Champion via CC, Public Domain,Elek Laszlo via Flickr CC

2 thoughts on “Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I cannot hear this one without thinking of Nijinsky. I have seen it performed as a child (not by Nijinsky, obviously, I am not quite that old!) It is soooo seductive, isn’t it, that opening riff with flute and harp… it just makes me want to stretch out in bed and read some more – it just spells ‘la grasse matinée’ to me!


    • theclassicalnovice says:

      Hey Marina, thanks for you comment. You have a lovely way of expressing the music in words too. This piece puts you in a whole different world whenever I listen to it. Me and the flute have become firm friends after Debussy.


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