[Pt. IV Proj.1] – Moving into the Twentieth Century – Project 1- Debussy and Impressionism – Research Point 4.1 –Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

[Pt. IV Proj.1] Research Point 4.1 – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Symbolism in art and poetry. Listen to the whole of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and read Mallarmé’s poem. How effective do you think the music is in evoking the poem? Do you think the ‘impressionist’ label for Debussy’s music is justified? Write around 400 words in your learning log.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

As I stated in my previous research point 4.0 to call Debussy an Impressionist is clearly a misnomer, he not only preferred the Symbolist art movement but also very much followed their aesthetics and manifesto. Quoting Jean Moréas:

 ‘… an archetypal and complex style; of unpolluted terms, periods which brace themselves alternating with periods of undulating lapses, significant pleonasms, mysterious ellipses, outstanding anacoluthia, any audacious and multiform surplus; finally, the good language – instituted and updated –, good and luxuriant and energetic French language …’

Quoting Theodore de Banville:

  • Truth in excess and extravagance.
  • Truth in apparent chaos and insanity.
  • Truth in subjective experience.
  • The danger of platitudes and natural banality.
  • The constant need to be ever more audacious.
  • The risk of what was once rebellious to become conformist.

Stephane Mallarmé was one of the best- known Symbolists of the day and his poem ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ was a major symbolist work. Claude Debussy certainly did it justice, imbuing his piece with the same otherworldly state that is expressed in the poem, allegorically depicting both the nature and the dreamlike state of the faun. The music is set to the poem and structured like a ‘tone poem’ even matching the 111 lines of poetry with 111 bars of music. Through a constant undermining of the sense of tonality he created an ambiguous ephemeral sound. Are we in E Major or Eb Major? Wholetone sections are used too and the famous tritone Faun theme depicting evil, all signal the rebellious break with tradition, which was also a major part of the Symbolist manifesto. Harmonically it is so adventurous and new it must have completely defied description at the time of its composition. I wrote a more comprehensive analysis of this piece recently for the ‘Past to Present’ course. I won’t repeat it all here, for anyone curious here is the link: https://sunnylazic.com/assignment-two-pt-ii-revised-after-formative-feedback-impressionism/

Fig. 1. Fauntastic Poem Green (2017)