The story of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)

Richard Langham-Smith wallows in a sensuous work that heralded a radical new chapter in orchestral writing

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A young flautist blows a rough-sounding C sharp for a few seconds, dribbles down a scale and up another way, landing back on the bad note on which he began. The scale is foreign, exotic, oriental perhaps, with no sense of key. Next, a harp enjoys a mildly discordant arpeggio, and horns undulate aimlessly in the background. Separated by puzzling silences, the harp and horns repeat their initial gesture. The flautist blows another C sharp (the bad note, unfingered, as anyone who has ever had a lesson on the flute might know). He spins more ornamental phrases: one might call them arabesques. The chords beneath seem to be hung from the flute’s long notes – pencilled in rather than driving the piece forward.

Welcome to the world of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Now imagine the audience’s reaction one evening in 1894 when it was given its first airing at Paris’s Salle Harcourt. All this either captivated or repelled those listeners who couldn’t understand anything that veered too far from traditional convention. Those with more open minds saw the glimmer of a new dawn, the shimmering orchestral colour changing kaleidoscopically; strings tremolando bowed over the fingerboard, wind instruments melting one into another, and again those touches from the harp… Such sensuality!

Those that realised that this piece was a landmark may have noticed that it transcended any previous concepts of how music could be close to a literary text without being a narrative symphonic poem: certainly groundbreaking in this respect. Originally a dramatic scene in a rhymed and rhythmic form, Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a faun tells of a faun’s vain attempts to seduce two nymphs, one rather shy, and one more forward. His antics take place against the backdrop of a hazy, humid landscape of rushes and reeds. A cello in Debussy’s score seems to imitate a frog, and above there are some bird-calls. Trilling woodwind recall the ‘Forest Murmurs’ of Wagner’s Siegfried.

In the poem the faun not only plays the flute: he has made it himself, fashioning it out of a reed. He tunes it and voices it, refining it to the point where it becomes an instrument of seduction. If it’s properly tempered, the nymphs will, despite themselves, succumb. Our concert flautist isn’t just portraying the faun: he is the faun.

Even in his early twenties Debussy was drawn to the idea of ‘real’ music within the music. An early setting of part of a verse-play Diane au bois (Diana in the woods) by Théodore de Banville has Eros as the protagonist. He, like the faun, takes a flute and plays a melody so wonderful that Diana, the goddess of both hunting and chastity, melts at his advances. Mallarmé heard Debussy’s piece and wrote to congratulate him finding ‘no conflict with his text’. Quite the reverse, in fact. For him Debussy’s music ‘went still further into the poem’s nostalgia and light, with finesse, malaise and richness’.

Its innovations must have been obvious to the first audience: its saving of the full orchestra for most of the piece; its delight in almost chamber-music textures; and its deliquescent ending. Such elements were admiringly singled out by several 20th-century composers. Bernstein discussed the piece at length in his 1970s Harvard lectures finding ‘not just stylistic but radical change: Mallarmé’s dream come true’. Even in the faun’s first notes he found that malaise the poet identified.

For Boulez it was again the poem which was the catalyst for this ‘miracle of proportion, balance and transparency: the awakening of modern music’. His emphasis on the formal reminds us of Debussy’s interest in proportion, evident in Faune through his teasing number-game of capturing the 110 lines of the poem with exactly the same number of bars.

Another marker of its innovations was its lively afterlife when Nijinsky revived it as a ballet with novel pseudo-Hellenistic choreography. Debussy disapproved, but the synthesis of gesture, costumes, music and the wonderful Léon Bakst backdrop have secured it a special place in ballet history.

Our new century awaits an exciting future for the piece. What did it sound like at its first performance with all those wind instruments of the time: Buffet clarinets, Louis Lot flutes and Erard harps? And what kind of a sound did that 18-year-old flautist make at the piece’s premiere? (He was, by the way, none other than George Barrère, later to champion the platinum flute and persuade Edgar Varèse to write a solo piece for him, named after its density, 21.5).

And why, incidentally, do we play it so slowly today? Our faun has slowed down during the century – perhaps the poor chap’s in need of a dose of viagra. Early recordings and a tempo-marking by Debussy suggest it was originally played in a more fleeting way. It seems more logical that it should float above and not sound too consummate: in the poem the faun never gets his nymphs, and reverts to wondering whether the whole event wasn’t just a waking dream…

 

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