Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune

In one of the first Copland chapters we read, Copland states that music always conjures up certain affects, even if we can’t precisely say what a piece of music “means.” That’s definitely true for Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun),” which was meant to be performed prior to a live reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” (source = The poem seems to portray the dreams, memories, or imaginations of a faun lazing in the afternoon heat, and several clusters of the sensations it offers appear in Debussy’s musical interpretation: (1) heat, mirages, and sluggishness/sleepiness; (2) lust, flesh, and ripeness; and (3) flutes, music/melodies, breath, and wind.

In the opening theme (0:00-0:36), for example, the flute (a wind instrument that sounds light and airy) fixes on a note for a few seconds, then floats down a chromatic scale. This makes the key of the piece uncertain–contrasting strongly with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, where the key is immediately obvious, and even with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which begins on the tonic note (even though whether the piece is minor or major is still ambiguous). This, combined with the free rhythm and the harp arpeggios (0:27-0:30, 0:40-0:43) make the overall affect magical & mysterious–which is fitting, since the poem’s speaker is a mythical creature. The flute’s carefree melody seems to mirror some of the flute references in the poem, too–“No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs / To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze / Out of the twin pipes…”

Furthermore, just as the faun in the poem describes his pent-up sexual desire (he refers to “Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril: / I seize them without untangling them and run / To this bank of roses… / All perfume”), Debussy’s piece is full of tension, which he creates through dynamics and extensive use of dissonance. With dynamics, the instruments frequently swell from piano to forte, only to subside to piano again; for example, from 0:58-1:10, the strings quiver underneath the flute, then swell briefly (1:10-1:13), subside, and then come back very loud with the woodwinds (1:37-1:48), only to subside again.

As an example of dissonance, at the beginning of the piece, the brass instruments layer several melodies over the flute (0:29-0:53) and do not harmonize until a very brief moment at 0:54. In general, consonance & harmony are fleeting–from 2:02-2:06, for example, we feel like we’re at “home base” musically, but then the music immediately becomes dissonant, and seems to fly to random melodies and chords until 2:34, where part of the opening theme returns. Yet another example is 3:04-3:30, where the clarinet runs up and down a chromatic scale while the strings play dissonant chords; again, there is no clear tonal center here. Perhaps the only lasting moment of consonance is the very end, where the music seems to finally reach an unambiguous key. (This final moment of harmony could point to the faun falling asleep at the end of the poem (“I / Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand…”).) Thus, Debussy uses huge swings in volume, strange harmonies, and absence of an obvious key to mimic the faun’s “eternal swarm of desire,” and perhaps even to mirror his sluggishness and daydreaming in the heat (“…this heavy body, / Succumb[s] to noon’s proud silence slowly…” and “Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour”).

Just as the poem’s speaker is a mythical creature dreaming in the sweltering afternoon, describing his intense sexual desire and the music he makes with his flute, Debussy conveys these sensations musically through large changes in volume, consistent use of dissonance, a lack of an unambiguous key, and prominent use of woodwind instruments (especially the flute).

11 thoughts on “Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune


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