A quick guide to Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune

Ahead of tonight's BBC Prom, we introduce the delights of Debussy's intoxicating symphonic poem

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A quick guide to Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune
Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
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What is Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune?

It is a symphonic poem, based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1865 poem L’après-midi d’un faune. Beginning with an alluring, chromatic solo on the flute, it then intoxicates the listener over ten minutes with its lushly layered score depicting a faun enjoying the pleasures of a warm afternoon.

 

When was it written?

Debussy first began toying with the idea of writing music based on Mallarmé’s poem in 1890. Discarding one or two more grandiose ideas along the way, he completed the Prélude in 1894. Ironically, this orchestral portrayal of the heat of the summer sun was premiered in the heart of winter – in Paris on 22 December, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.

 

At just ten minutes long, why is it such an important work?

In short, because it rewrote the rulebook. Although various musical cells are repeated throughout, there is no apparent structure to the work, and at times it appears almost improvised. Many years later, composer Pierre Boulez described its composition as a seminal moment, saying that ‘modern music was awakened by L’après-midi d’un faune’.

 

What, roughly, is described in the music?

Like Mallarmé’s poem itself, the imagery in Debussy’s music is gloriously vague. A faun awakes from a dream on a sultry afternoon with images of beautiful nymphs floating around in his consciousness – were they real, or just imagined? After mentally pursuing these erotic but elusive objects of his desire for a while, the faun eventually sinks back into sleep. Beats your average afternoon in the office, frankly.

 

Anything else?

Yes. In 1912, Nijinsky choreographed the work as a ballet, playing the part of the faun himself at the premiere given by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. He didn't hold back, and the production caused a major stir.

 

What's on at the Proms tonight?

Prom 44: Wednesday 15 August 2018, 7.30pm

Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130, 'Du fond de l'abîme'
Debussy Nocturnes
Ravel Boléro

Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano)
CBSO Youth Chorus
CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Ludovic Morlot (conductor)
 

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