Debussy – Prelude to An Afternoon of a Faun

by Max Derrickson

Claude Debussy   (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug. 1862; Paris, 25 March 1918)

Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)


French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, along with Paul Valéry and André Gide were the key writers at the heart of the Decadent, and then the Symbolist, movements in the last part of the 1800’s.  Mallarmé’s style was famously represented by his texts taking shape as visual patterns, such as “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (where text is in the shape of tumbling dice), but his “Afternoon of a Faun” represented the Symbolist principles brilliantly with its other-worldliness, erotic sensuality and dream-like character.

“These nymphs I would perpetuate
So clear
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?
My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing
In many subtle branch, which left the true
Wood itself, proves, alas!  That all alone I gave
Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.
Let me reflect . . .”

(Excerpt from “Afternoon of a Faun” 1865, by Stéphane Mallarmé; translation by Roger Fry)

Debussy, usually considered a musical Impressionist, met Mallarmé in 1890, very near the height of his fame as one of France’s greatest composers.  Impressionism in music was completely compatible with the Symbolist doctrine in literature, and the two artists quickly became close colleagues.  Mallarmé’s famous Tuesday night salons found Debussy a frequent guest, as well as many of that Era’s foremost painters, authors and musicians.

[. . .]

The Prelude ingeniously evokes Mallarmé’s poetic moment of a lascivious dream state, of being held capture by utter beauty and sensuality.  Debussy accomplishes this rather cleverly by mostly abandoning structure and melody (although melody is integral enough) and instead giving the Prelude its flow by having its sonorities and harmonies center upon the psychological affect of the tone C#.  Once the incomparably lovely and ethereal flute opening is played, we are set comfortably into a soft bed of lushness.  [. . .]