Debussy: Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune

ACHILLE-CLAUDE DEBUSSY (He dropped the name Achille in 1892.)

BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint Germain-en-Laye, Départment of Seine-et-Oise, France

DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris, France

COMPOSED: Begun in 1892 and completed on October 23, 1894, with further minor revisions over the span of two decades

WORLD PREMIERE: December 22, 1894. Gustave Doret conducted at a concert in Paris of the Société Nationale de Musique

US PREMIERE: April 1, 1902, Georges Longy led the Boston Orchestral Club

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT— April 2015, led by Pablo Heras-Casado

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 harps, antique cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 10 mins

THE BACKSTORY Claude Debussy achieved his musical maturity in the final decade of the nineteenth century. It was a magical moment in France, when partisans of the visual arts fully embraced the gentle luster of Impressionism, when poets navigated the indirect locutions of Symbolism, when composers struggled with the pluses and minuses of Wagner, and when the City of Light blazed even more brightly than usual, enflamed with the pleasures of the Belle Époque.

Several early Debussy masterpieces of the nineties have stuck forcefully in the enduring repertory, including, most strikingly, Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun), completed in 1894. Debussy was hardly a youngster when he composed it. He had begun studying at the Paris Conservatory in 1872, when he was only ten; had served as resident pianist and musical pet for Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s mysterious patroness, in Russia and in her travels during the summers of 1880-82; had finally gained the imprimatur of the Prix de Rome in 1884 (for his cantata L’Enfant prodigue), enabling him to spend the next two years in Italy; had inhaled the Wagnerian breezes of Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889; had grown enamored of the sounds of the Javanese gamelan at the Paris International Exposition of 1889; and had composed a great many songs and piano pieces. While helping define the composer’s distinctive voice, these early works baffled many listeners. Of the Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune Debussy’s fellow composer Alfred Bruneau wrote “[It] is one of the most exquisite instrumental fantasies which the young French school has produced. This work is too exquisite, alas! it is too exquisite.”

Even at the distance of more than a century, listeners can appreciate Bruneau’s concern. The Debussy of the 1890s sometimes seems so obsessed with minute details of timbre that everything can threaten to implode into a mass of sensual loveliness. The composer’s eventual style was not to display the sort of firm, unmistakable architecture that most composers up until that time had cherished. His method would evolve into something more intuitive, with themes that invite little development, with harmonies inspiring momentary excitement rather than underscoring long trajectory. Although he is sometimes called a musical Impressionist, his aesthetic affinities would seem to be more allied to the Symbolists, those poets and artists of the late-nineteenth century who disdained the purely expository or representational and sought instead to evoke a specific, fleeting emotional illumination in the reader or viewer through sometimes mysterious metaphors.

One of those poets was Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem L’Après-midi d’un faune (penned in 1865 and revised a decade hence) is a feast of transcendence. Mallarmé’s poem—which he called an eclogue—was published in a most elegantly produced little book with a drawing by Manet. This seemed to make next to no impact, but J.K. Huysmans mentioned the poem enthusiastically in À Rebours (Against the Grain), an influential novel, published in 1884 and dubbed “the breviary of decadence.” Suddenly everyone was curious about Mallarmé and L’Après-midi d’un faune, enough so for the poem to be republished with wider circulation in the Revue indépendante. It was then that Debussy saw the poem he was to make so famous and which indeed was to be so significant in establishing his own renown.

THE MUSIC Debussy responds to Mallarmé’s voluptuousness in kind, reinventing the flute (that pours water “into chord-besprinkled thickets”), reinventing the orchestra, finding new harmonies, new rhythms, new ways of ordering events. No one had ever heard a beginning like this one, with these four subtly varied proposals of one melody, at once so sensual and so incorporeal.

Paul Dukas, to whom Debussy had given a copy of Mallarmé’s poem in 1887, was especially struck by the music’s lucidity. Having occasion in 1901 to review his friend’s Nocturnes, Dukas reflected:

Whether he collaborates with Baudelaire, Verlaine, or Mallarmé, or draws from his own resources the subject of his works, [M. Debussy] shows above all his concern to avoid what might be called the direct translation of feelings. What attracts him in the poets we have just mentioned is precisely their art of transposing everything into symbolic pictures, of making multiple resonances vibrate under one word. Now M. Debussy’s music does not seize upon the evocative meaning of these poems in the manner of ordinary music. His effort seems to be to note the most distant harmonics of the verse and to take possession of all the suggestions of the text in order to transport them to the realm of musical expression. Most of his compositions are thus symbols of symbols, but expressed in a language itself so rich, so persuasive, that it sometimes reaches the eloquence of a new word, carrying its own law within it, and often much more intelligible than that of the poems on which it comments. Such is the case, for example, with L’Après-midi d’un faune.

Perhaps Mallarmé himself said it even better. After the first concert performance of Prélude, which he had already heard with astonished pleasure when Debussy played it for him on the piano, he sent to the composer a copy of the poem, inscribed with these lines: “Sylvan spirit, if with your primal breath/Your flute sounds well,/ Hear now the radiance/When Debussy plays.”Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2019)