Debussy - Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Debussy's symphonic poem, first performed in 1894, was planned originally as merely the first part of a trilogy.

The composer intended the final set of three pieces to have included an Interlude and a Paraphrase finale. in the end, for reasons best known to himself, Debussy decided to combine all his thoughts on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, ('The Afternoon of a Faun' of the title) to just one single movement. The composer was 32 years old when he wrote it and it was 18 years later that it was adapted into a ballet, when Vaslav Nijinsky danced to it in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production in Paris.

The music itself tells the tale of the mythical faun, playing his pipes alone in the woods. He is enchanted by nymphs and naiads and drifts off to sleep filled with colourful dreams. From the dreamy opening flute tune, the sleepy calm of an afternoon in the forest is evoked through smooth melodies and almost improvisatory passages. 

This piece is a big turning point in music, perhaps allowing us to hear the traditional system of keys and tonalities being stretched to their limit for the first time. Bernstein, Boulez and many more great musicians have sat to ponder the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, coming to the conclusion that it was ten minutes that changed the musical world. 

So what is it that makes this luscious piece so ground-breaking? It opens, famously, with a sinuous solo flute melody that conjures up all the languorous heat of a summer afternoon. This figure descends chromatically down an augmented fourth, or tritone (an unsettling interval that was branded 'the devil in music' during medieval times), before climbing back up – all the while refusing to settle in any key or tonal centre. Afterwards, it felt to many composers that there was nowhere else to go but a new modern style of classical music composition. All this, and it sounds sumptuously wonderful, too.

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