The magic Impression of Debussy: Prelude to the afternoon of the faun

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In the late XIX century, Stéphane Mallarmé was a sort of “lay messiah” who had come down to Earth to direct artists and intellectuals to new horizons. As the French poet Laurent Thailade once recalled:

“He used to welcome his admirers. No object, except for the portait of the host painted by Edouard Manet and some canvases by Whistler. Illustrious men of all kinds visited the poet. Wrapped in an haute couture tailcoat, with rings made of precious stones, diamond-studded like a priestess of Venus, Oscar Wilde was often there. Then, the host appeared: a small man, with the head of a faun and kind eyes, the cigar perpetually in his hand. Without inopportune gestures, and without ever leaving the corner where the fireplace was crackling, he measured out his words with great care, limiting himself to those affirmations that had made him, for everyone, the divine Mallarmé.”

“Divine”, before the French symbolist poet’s name, can immediately explain what kind of admiration people had for him at that time. Among them, living a real cult of personality, there was a musician that would generate a “fever” in the fin de siècle Paris after lending his composition skills to Mallarmé’s words. His name was Claude Debussy.

Claude Debussy, Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune

The original plan included the composition of a symphonic poem to be performed as a sort of “soundtrack” to Mallarmé’s composition L’après-midi d’un faune. When the show failed to go on stage, the musician stood with half-completed work. Deciding to finish it, in 1892 Debussy took it up again, developing all the sketches and adding the title Prélude, Interlude et Paraphrase finale sur l’Après-midi d’un faune. The first unofficial piano performance took place at the composer’s house and received the approval of the poet, who expressed amazement and wonder at how music succeeded in descriptions not even painting would have equaled.

A key element changed by Debussy was the goal of those notes: not a soundtrack to a text, but a composition inspired by Mallarmé’s words. Since there wasn’t a strict correlation between music and the poem anymore, the story itself could even change. The afternoon of the faun – always searching for a nymph who would not run aways – would have presented its own (slightly different) characteristics able to make it an autonomous listening too. The so-called Debussiste, the “fever” that struck the city of Paris in the 1890s, broke out precisely on the official première of this composition, dated 22 December 1894 at the Salle d’Harcourt of the Societé National de Musique.

Divided into four parts, the Prelude immediately presents us with the “protagonist”, the faun, evoked by the sound of the flute which returns, in various forms, from beginning to end. It is not a random tonal choice, but a typical reference in European culture that dates to Greek mythology. For the ancients, this partly human and partly animal figure was the symbol of the strength of the sexual instinct of the man. In full continuity, Debussy shapes the sound of the flute to generate a series of climaxes that never resolve, and which therefore bring us back to the idea of frustrated desire.

After a brief introduction that contextualizes the theme of the faun in the situation described by the poem, a pause silences the music for a few moments, resuming shortly after with four elaborations. Debussy’s skill lies in knowing how to re-propose the same material each time with different “filters” that do not let the listener settle down and keep their attention alive. Frémissement, typically Wagnerian chords, pauses, arabesques, “stuck” progressions, obsessive scales. There is nothing certain in this composition. The exhibitions of the theme are presented from time to time in ways to “disguise” the material and allow the imagination of the listener to work to produce new sensations.

Compared to the second one, the third section has a more evident melodic continuity, with the strings becoming denser and denser, until the climax of tension, when the sound of the solo violin appears to represent the arrival of the nymph. This is also a non-random element: after the première of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1861), the cliché of the sound of the violin as a symbol of female sensuality prevails – in the opera juxtaposed to the goddess Venus.

The last part is, perhaps, the most symbolist moment. As if to unconsciously anticipate the cinematographic technique of alternate editing, Debussy inserts two fragments completely disconnected from the context without an explicit explanation. Once again, the listener can create the sense of what is proposed, following his own sensitivity and the suggestions the music gives him. The coda of the Prelude resumes the atmosphere of the first part and adds a dialogue between the faun and the nymph, causing the composition to take a different direction than the poem. Where Mallarmé does not resolve the erotic tension of the faun and lets it get lost in a wish thwarted again, Debussy finally resolves all the climaxes he earlier collapsed – thus closing with a more liberating atmosphere.

Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Debussy

Three are the (more or less hidden) elements that can be found throughout the composition: the sound of the flute (an allusion to the animalistic virility of the faun); the ever-changing rhythm that recalls the loss of inhibitions and what between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was called “diabolus in musica” (an interval full of tension that the theorists of harmony forbade for a very long time).

It is difficult to remain impassive listening to a masterpiece of this kind, whose symbolism is still evolving but which well shows the infinite possibilities of Impression to become any sort of art – not just pictorial.

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