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By Jason Sundram

Prelude to L’ apres midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) (1894)



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Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862–March 25, 1918)

Camille Saint-Saens said “[The Afternoon of a Faun] has a pretty sound, but there is not the least truly musical idea in it; it is no more a piece of music than the palette on which a painter has been working is a picture.”

Debussy’s original ambition was to be a sailor. To modern audiences, it is nearly inconceivable to imagine the father of impressionism in music as a sailor, but as late as 1889, Debussy answered a questionnaire asking what career he would have pursued, if not that of a musician—“a sailor.”

In 1872, he entered the Paris conservatoire as a student of Marmontel. After only a year, his teacher reported that Debussy had “a true artistic temperament; much can be expected of him.” By July of 1875, his piano skills were such that he was reported to be “a twelve year old prodigy who promises to be a virtuoso of the first order.”

It soon became apparent that Debussy was not to be a performer. In the words of his teacher: “He doesn’t care much for the piano, but he does love music.” It was in his theory classes with Albert Lavignac (1873—76) that he really caught fire. Although he frequently questioned and argued with his professors, his ability was clear. In 1876, he completed his earliest mature composition, Nuit d’ toiles.

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony was premiered in Paris. As Tchaikovsky was in Paris seven times between 1883 and 1892, it is hard to explain why the two great composers never met. Yet Afternoon clearly shows Tchaikovsky’s influence. The horn writing in the central part of Afternoon is reminiscent of the love scenes of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

Afternoon was one of the early masterpieces that established Debussy as major composer. In 1892, he began work on a composition inspired by L’Après-midi d’un faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”), a pastoral poem published in 1876 by the symbolist writer Stephane Mallarme. Before finding its final form, Afternoon underwent dramatic changes. From its original conception as incidental music to accompany a reading, by mid-1894 it was ready to be performed as Prelude, Interludes and Final Paraphrase for “The Afternoon of a Faun”, but Debussy withdrew the score for revision. By December, The Afternoon of a Faun as it is known today was given its debut in Paris.

In Afternoon, Debussy sought to record fleeting impressions, as in poetry. He decided to “sacrifice dramatic action to an expression of the long exploration of inner feelings.” Prokofiev responded to this, saying in 1913 that Debussy’s music was “not sufficiently meaty.” The rhapsodic character of the piece is established from the beginning, with the flute entrance. The now-famous ballet that popularized Afternoon, choreographed by the Russian danseur Ninjinsky, was first performed in Paris 1912, with Ninjinsky as the Faun.

On his copy of the published music, Mallarmé wrote: “When the flute music is well played, you hear all the light that Debussy’s first breath blows through the forest!”