Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, L. 86

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          While others, notably Franz Liszt, were on the forefront of stylistic change during the nineteenth century, it is surely Claude Debussy who forever established entirely new ways of thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture. More than anyone, he truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century. And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire. His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,”—a term he deplored--but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much. What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that really dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas. His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers (all names we know so well!) that had dominated concert halls for several centuries. There was opera, to be sure, and Italians had always held sway there, but in abstract music (no words) the Germans were generally king. Along comes Debussy with a refreshing alternative æsthetic.

          In a nutshell, Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationship to every other part. Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block. He opened up new ways of composing and listening, and the musical world was changed forever.

          He adored painting and poetry, and his deep immersion in those arts is fundamental in searching for meaning in his personal musical style. His æsthetic was rooted in the French nineteenth-century literary movement known as “symbolism.” While most educated Americans today know and speak glibly of “impressionism,” and associate our composer with that style in painting, it is with the much less familiar concept of “symbolism,” specifically that in French literature, that informed almost all of Debussy’s music. Symbolism is traced by most to the poet, Charles Baudelaire, as well as to the imagery and themes of Edgar Allen Poe, whose works in French translation were of great popularity and influence in France. Later, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine were the central figures of the movement, and whose influence on Debussy it would be difficult to overestimate.

          Essentially, symbolists were interested in spirituality, dreamlike imprecision, the indefinite nature of the imagination. They deplored artistic trends of the time that focused on nature, reality, objectivity and the like. The imagery in their poetry was elusive and indirect. Those familiar with movements in the visual arts will find more affinities in the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, than the Impressionists. In the former, a gauzy impression of an object or scene is not the intent, but rather a depiction of something apparently clear in perception, but heavily laden with veiled meaning. An evocation of a feeling, rather than an impression was sought. Moreover, symbolist poetry was highly dependent upon the sound of the French language and the possibility of aural ambiguity—and nowhere was this more basic than in the poetry of Mallarmé.

          His poem, L’après-midi d’un faune (1876), is the subject of Debussy’s one-movement “tone poem,” and is his most recognized work. While the text concerns the awakening of a faun from a drowsy mid-afternoon nap, and his reflections on his memories of his adventures with nymphs that morning, the narrative is not straightforward and linear—and neither is Debussy’s score. A faun, of course, is a creature that is half goat and half man, symbolic in literature of untrammeled natural spirits, and nymphs are young, nubile free spirits who sing and dance their way to amorous freedom. So.

          The tone poem in the hands of masters such as Liszt, Smetana, and Strauss generally has focused on very specific images and the stories behind them. But, the genre in the hands of Debussy (under the influence of the symbolists) approached the text in a much different way. His Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), from the immortal opening languid, sensuous flute solo, creates an episodic series of feelings, atmospheres, and reflections rather than a story. The faun, half-dulled by the afternoon heat thinks random thoughts of “. . . enervating swoon of heat, which stifles all fresh dawn’s resistance”; “. . . girls sleeping, with their reckless arms around each other”; and “. . . my speechless soul and heavy-laden body succumb at last to noontime’s ceremonial pause.”

           For these thoughts and moods Debussy crafted perfect orchestral colors, melodies, and harmonies. While not a follower of Brahms—nor, on the other hand, of Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss, either--Debussy, with this first great success, opened the door to the twentieth century in music, and it was never the same thereafter.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan