The magic Impression of Debussy: Prelude to the afternoon of the faun

Stéphane Mallarmé was a sort of “lay messiah” who descended to Earth in the late XIX century to guide thinkers and artists toward new frontiers. As originally recalled by the French poet Laurent Thailade:

“He used to welcome his admirers. No object, except for the portait of the host painted by Edouard Manet and some canvases by Whistler. Illustrious men of all kinds visited the poet. Wrapped in an haute couture tailcoat, with rings made of precious stones, diamond-studded like a priestess of Venus, Oscar Wilde was often there. Then, the host appeared: a small man, with the head of a faun and kind eyes, the cigar perpetually in his hand. Without inopportune gestures, and without ever leaving the corner where the fireplace was crackling, he measured out his words with great care, limiting himself to those affirmations that had made him, for everyone, the divine Mallarmé.”

The word “divine” before the name of the French symbolist poet quickly conveys the level of adoration that people at the time had for him. One of them, who was the subject of a true personality cult, was a musician who, by applying his compositional talents to Mallarmé’s words, would cause a “fever” in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Claude Debussy was his name.

A symphonic poem was supposed to be written and performed as a type of “soundtrack” to Mallarmé’s piece L’après-midi d’un faune in the original scheme. The musician was still standing with unfinished work when the performance failed to start. Debussy decided to complete it, so he picked it up again in 1892, refining all the ideas and giving it the title Prélude, Interlude et Paraphrase finale sur l’Après-midi d’un faune. The poet gave the first informal piano performance at the composer’s home his approval and expressed awe and wonder at how music could achieve descriptions that not even painting could have matched.

The intention of those notes, which Debussy adjusted to be a piece inspired by Mallarmé’s words rather than a soundtrack to a text, was a significant move. The plot itself may alter because there was no longer a direct link between the music and the poem. The faun’s day, which was continually looking for a nymph who wouldn’t flee, would have had its own (slightly unique) traits that may have made it a standalone listening experience. The formal première of this composition, which took place on December 22, 1894, at the Salle d’Harcourt of the Societé National de Musique, coincided exactly with the outbreak of the so-called Debussiste, the “fever” that swept through Paris in the 1890s.

The Prelude, which is divided into four parts, introduces us to the “protagonist” right away—the faun—through the use of the flute, a musical instrument that appears repeatedly throughout the piece in different guises. It is not a tone that was chosen at random, but rather one that is common in European culture and dates back to Greek mythology. The intensity of a man’s sexual urge was symbolized by this hybrid human-animal form to the ancients. In complete continuity, Debussy manipulates the flute’s sound to produce a string of unresolved climaxes that return us back to the notion of unfulfilled longing.

After a brief introduction that places the faun theme in the context of the setting described in the poem, there is a brief silence in the music before four elaborations resume it. The secret to Debussy’s expertise is his ability to continually re-present the same material through several “filters” that prevent the listener from becoming complacent and maintain their interest. Frémissement, classic Wagnerian chords, arabesques, “stuck” progressions, and obsessive scales are all musical elements. This composition contains no certainties. The exhibits on the theme are occasionally presented in ways to “disguise” the content and enable the listener’s imagination to create new sensations.

While the strings get denser and denser until the tension climax, when the sound of the solo violin seems to indicate the nymph’s arrival, the third section of the piece has a more obvious melodic continuity than the second. Another non-random factor is that, following the premiere of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1861), the violin’s tone has come to represent female sexuality, and in the opera Venus is placed opposite the violin.

The most symbolically charged section is probably the end. Debussy adds two parts that are wholly out of place from the context without a clear explanation, as if subconsciously anticipating the cinematographic approach of alternate cutting. Once more, the listener can interpret what is being suggested based on his own sensibility and the cues the music gives him. The mood of the first half is revived in the Prelude’s coda, which also includes a conversation between a faun and a nymph that changes the composition’s direction from that of the poem. Debussy eventually resolves all the climaxes he before collapsed, finishing with a more liberated note, in contrast to Mallarmé, who does not resolve the erotic tension of the faun and allows it to become lost in a yearning denied again.

The flute’s sound (a reference to the faun’s animalistic virility); the constantly shifting rhythm; and what was known as “diabolus in musica” between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (a tense interval that harmony theorists forbade for a very long time). These three elements can be heard throughout the entire composition.

It is challenging to maintain your composure while listening to a work of art of this caliber, whose symbolism is still developing but which effectively demonstrates the boundless potential of Impressionism to become any kind of art, not simply pictorial.

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