Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, arr. by Arnold Schoenberg

Recorded Aug. 18, 2016 at Poetry in Motion concert
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Duration: 10’19”


violin: Min Young Kim, Airi Yoshioka
viola: Vladimir Mendelssohn
cello: Carl Donakowski
double bass: Peter Spaar
flute: Mary Boodell
oboe: Roger Roe
clarinet: Igor Begelman
bassoon: Larisa Gelman
horn: Todd Williams
piano: Edward Janning
harmonium: Lee Dionne
percussion: Brian Smith


Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” signaled a new era in compositional style and intent, even though that new style was not to everyone’s liking. Some saw it as a liberation from the weighty textures and Teutonic mythology that Wagnerism had spread over much European music.  Debussy was leaner and more evocative.  Others thought it did not go nearly far enough in that direction; the Prelude’s dreamy use of non-tonal pitch collections effused a world of shadows and perfume when a harsh dose of bright reality was needed.

Debussy pondered the poetic source material for many years. Written  by Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Afternoon of a Faun” (1876) deals with a faun’s erotic fantasies inspired by either real or imagined nymphs (“Was it a dream I loved?”). The classical setting and overt sexuality of the text made it a touchstone for debates over the future of literature. Debussy’s tastes made him susceptible to the poem’s allure, for he had already begun setting similar texts by Baudelaire and Maeterlinck when work on the Prelude commenced in 1892.  At first, he planned a full accompaniment to each moment of the poem, perhaps even a mini staged drama.  But by the time of completion, he had wisely settled on a “very free illustration of the beautiful poem of Mallarmé.”

The iconic opening theme outlines a descending tritone from C-sharp to G natural using the faun’s solo flute.  Uncertain tonal implications are given new light when the theme subsequently receives a harmonic foundation in a seventh chord on D.  Above shimmering glissandi in harp and pulsating chromatic motion in the winds, the flute arabesques become gradually more ornate, more seductive.  Debussy closes the first section in B major and then moves into a more agitated episode culminating in soaring strings.  Tonal color, built from radiant mixtures of whole-tone and pentatonic elements, turns gently to A flat major.  The next scene, a pas de deux in Nijinsky’s choreographed version, suggests the faun embracing a nymph.  Its poignant union of rapture and longing centers on the tritone-related chord progression.  Debussy’s lines undulate and swell, rise and recede.  At the last part of the dance, he calms the rampant sensuality down to a violin solo leading seamlessly to a reprise of the opening theme.  Almost the entire final three minutes are needed to cool off from the heat of passionate embraces.  At the last, Debussy’s faun strikes a languorous pose in serene E major.

© Jason Stell, 2016