Listening Log- [Pt. II] – Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’
Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’
One of the first fully formed pieces of music of the Impressionist genre was Debussy’s piece ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’. It was named and inspired by the poem, ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ by Stephane Mallarmé. The poem tells of a slumbering faun dreaming of sensual encounters with several nymphs. The faun, on the cusp of waking, is not certain were his dream ends and reality begins.
Claude Debussy’s Prelude, was supposed to be a triptych but only the Prelude was completed. It could be considered a Symphonic poem, following the seven sections of Mallarme’s poem with seven repetitions (or variations thereof) of the main flute theme, each time harmonised in a new and unconventional way. Mallarme’s 110 lines are matched by 110 bars of music. (Davenant Performing Arts Dept, s.a)
The Faun’s flute theme opens with a tritone- ‘Diabolus in Musica’. (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 2010)
The concept of the forbidden tritone was established by the old authorities of in the Middle Ages and prevailed to the end of the common practice period. ‘It seems first to have been designated as a “dangerous” interval when Guido of Arezzo developed his system of hexachords and with the introduction of B flat as a diatonic note, at much the same time acquiring its nickname of “Diabolus in Musica” (“the devil in music”). (Denis, 1983)
By the Romantic period composers such as Wagner and Liszt had started to use the dissonant interval frequently to express ‘evil’ and ominous atmospheres.
Debussy seized on this interval to symbolise his Faun. After all, what could be more appropriate for this decadent goat God, this Pan? Decadence and Symbolism were closely interlinked at the time and Debussy undoubtedly wanted to rebel against the establishment with his refusal to conform to the teachings of functional harmony.
He created a deliberate sense of ambiguity and atonality. The key alluded to is E Major but this key is constantly undermined, with the first motif resolving to the dominant 7th of EbMajor. Then a whole tone section is introduced. Although the use of whole tone scales can be traced as far back as Bach it is fair to say that Debussy’s use became the most extensive and innovative to date.
Debussy used the timbre of the instruments to create very specific colours and to use new instrumentation combinations to create colour shifts. With a relatively small orchestra he managed to create a very rich tapestry of sound. The string parts were frequently divisi and various techniques such as ‘sur la touche’ were used.
The woodwind section with it’s flutes and the harps playing glissandi and the chorales all painted a very magical, pastural fantasy. Very much the scene of a Faun’s reveries.
Debussy definitively achieved the musical agility, lightness and subtleness of tone colour required to convey this dream state. It is so effective I find it near impossible to listen to this piece critically and stay in an analytical state of mind. I am constantly pulled into the music and drift away with it. A fully realised piece of music.
With this piece and with his music in general Debussy created a new musical language and new sonorities.
Strings were no longer only lyrical instruments and the use of woodwind colour and brass was extended also, to the point of each instrument having the prominence of a soloist. Chordal melodies, using parallel chords and fleshed out unisons, unprepared modulations alongside exotic wholetone and pentatonic scales were the tools offering a new way of developing music without using functional harmony.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Lazic, S. (2017) Fauntastic Poem [Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Lazic.
Brown, M. (2012) Debussy Redux: The Impact of His Music on Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Cooke, M. (2008) A history of film music. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon. co. uk (Accessed on 9 March 2017)
Centre de documentation Claude Debussy. (s.d) Cashier Debussy. At: http://www.debussy.fr/encd/pub/sommaires.php (Accessed on 1 April 2017)
Davenant Performing Arts Dept. (s.d) 5. Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. At: http://davenantperformingarts.org.uk/AjaxRequestHandler.ashx?Function=GetSecuredDOC&DOCUrl=App_Data/davenantperformingarts_org_uk/ClassPages/022/_Documents_2012-13/Unit-6-5-Debussy.pdf (Accessed on 20 April 2017)
Debussy, C. (2017) Debussy: Prélude à ‘l’après-midi d’un faune’ / La Mer (1000 Years of Classical Music, Vol.63). [Download] Available at : Claude Debussy – Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune’, L.86 (Accessed on 6 April 2017)
Debussy, C. (1895) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Paris: E. Fromont. [Online] At: http://imslp.org/wiki/Pr%C3%A9lude_%C3%A0_l%27apr%C3%A8s-midi_d%27un_faune_(Debussy,_Claude) (Accessed on 28 April 2017)
Denis, A. (1983) ‘Tritone’. In: The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A–J : Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Devoto, M. (2004) Debussy And The Veil Of Tonality: Essays On His Music. New York: Pendragon Press.
LA PHIL. (s.d) ABOUT THE PIECE: PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN. At: http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/prelude-to-afternoon-of-faun-claude-debussy (Accessed on 20 April 2017)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (2010) [user-generated content online] Creat. Simmons, M. 4 October 2010 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVGBH8JmF5U (Accessed on 20 April 2017)