This research point is about listening to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) in relation to the literary source that inspired it – Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (1876). The aim is to discuss how effectively the music evokes the poem and whether or not the ‘impressionist’ label for Debussy’s music is justified. As my research covered the scope much larger than the brief has proposed in terms of 400 words suggestion, I have divided this post into two parts. To commence the deliberation on this topic, I will first explore Mallarme’s poem in this post, before moving on to Debussy’s composition to consider how it interacts with the former in the next post. Finally, I will examine the impressionist label that is often attached to Debussy’s music in the third post.
Mallarmé’s L’après-midi d’un faune in the failings of memory, language and music:
A symbolist eclogue of dualities
between reality/reverie and dramatic/poetic expression
L’après-midi d’un faune is a symbolist poem by the French poet and critic, Stéphane Mallarmé (Fig. 1). The poem is 110-lines long and set in alexandrine rhymes, the leading verse measure elevated to the status of national symbol in the French poetry (Peureux, 2012: 36).
Fig. 1. Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (1900)
Probably inspired by François Boucher’s painting Pan and Syrinx (Fig .2) and drawing from Ovid’s original myth itself (Austin, 1987: 139-41), the poem relates a pastoral daydream in the lazy afternoon of a flute-playing faun – mythical half-man and half-goat creature, who recalls his pursuit of two unattainable nymphs. The subtitle Eclogue gives a nod to the poetic genre of eclogue, which is often composed as a dialogue on the subject of pastoral idylls, introduced first by the Greek poet Theocritus and subsequently developed by the Latin poet Virgil, whose archetype was imitated by the future generations of poets.
Fig. 2. Pan and Syrinx by François Boucher (1759)
When I initially started reading the poem, I was quite struck by the capitalized opening ‘THE FAUN’, which introduces the reader to the character. Being a recent film and drama student, I was really surprised to encounter such formatting, since it reminded me more of the scripts I would get for my acting classes. In fact, formatting in general has a very drama-like quality. For example, ‘RELATE’ or ‘TELL’ (depending on translation) on line 30 being capitalized reminded me of stage directions followed by the text in quotation marks as if denoting that this section is to be spoken, or the way italicized bits seem to respond to the text of roman type like from a different voice, yet left unspoken without quotation marks, as if being part of the faun’s inner dialogue.
Having previously read some of Virgil’s eclogues for a performance my physical theatre group has devised titled ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, although Mallarmé’s poem relies on the standard pastoral imagery, I believe it constitutes an interesting symbolist reframing of the genre’s outward dialogue format between characters into an inner, psychological duality within a single character’s experiences of the unstable nature of remembering. This is perhaps even pointing to the Cartesian mind/body duality in the process – another subject I have recently explored in physical theatre. Moreover, this peculiar dialogic dramaturgical textual presentation is magnified further by the juxtaposition of the pronouns ‘I/You’ by the faun in reference to himself.
With some research, to my contentment, I found that the poem was actually originally conceived as a dramatic work, but was subsequently rewritten to only retain some of the aspects of the dramatic monologue (Zielonka, 2000: 15). Unlike the initial version that recounts the events directly, the poetic medium allowed the reality to be entirely confused with illusion, memory, nostalgia, longing and daydreaming, abstracted from any concrete place or time. Indeed, while reading the poem, I often found the faun an unreliable narrator and would ponder throughout the text whether the events he was trying to recall are real or imagined – which he ponders on as well. Interestingly, I observed that this clouded, mystical narrative that escapes any definitive interpretation also stands in tension with the framework of strict rhyming alexandrines, which together with the poetic-dramatic duality, brings another formal tension between fixity and mobility.
Bringing the discussion closer to music, with the faun, similarly to Pan, being a flute/pipe player, there was no surprise to notice many musical references like ‘flute’, ‘twin pipes’, ‘murmurs’, ‘melodies’, ‘notes’, ‘singing’, ‘modulating’, ‘sonorous’, etc. In fact, Malarmé himself considered L’après-midi d’un faune to be a ‘running pianistic commentary’ on the alexandrine verse (cited in Code, 2004: 71). Regardless, in the Ovidian myth (2018: 55), Pan relentlessly pursued the naiad Syrinx, who vowed to chastity as a follower of goddess Artemis. At the water’s edge, she called her sister nymphs to rescue her and was turned her into a stand of reeds. To compensate for his thwarted desires, Pan constructed the pan pipes known as syrinx. In Virgil’s eclogues, I saw that shepherds often take up their pipes in compensation for their lost love, often lazing in the shades of a tree as a conventional posture. However, Mallarmé reconfigures this trope as well, since the faun cannot laze beneath the trees of his pastoral world and fill the woods with the beauty of his lost nymphs because of the ‘shadows’ of his own doubt in the dualities of memory.
Unsure where the shade of the trees leaves off and his doubt begins, the faun’s visual relationship to his world collapses from ‘rosiness’ into ‘tufted slumbers’. But the faun not only continually questions his sight in his loss of pastoral security, but also casts his flute/pipe instrument aside in the second half of the poem. Rejecting the Virgilian musical compensation to pipe in the memory of the nymphs, but declares his need to contact them directly: ‘Me, proud of my noise, I am going to speak’ (line 54). In this sense, pastoral piping is identified to be just as treacherous as his sight, leading the faun’s pursuit of voice to gain focus in the absence of pastoral piping. Nonetheless, even his voice ends up only being a fleeting claim to speech, having a weak linguistic hold on reality and by the end of the poem only ‘silence remains’ as the sunset hues announce the isolation in the upcoming dusk. At the end of the poem, though a ‘sad sleep thunders’ and ‘the flame is extinguished’, there is an echo of the so-called ‘verspertinal’ tone that ends several of Virgil’s eclogues (Alpers, 1972: 357) – the evening star, which becomes faun’s new intoxicating goal ‘the star of wines’, while the nymphs have become mere shadows of a failed pursuit he was failing to recall.
In conclusion, I remember reading some translations of Mallarmé’s works in high school, however, I didn’t really understand them as I only had basic interpretational skills. It’s really now that I have studied drama, film and music at an academic level that I can notice certain things beyond the obvious imageries in the poem like intertextuality in the reframing of different devices from classic eclogues, dramatic and musical topos and many dualities in order to describe them with proper analysis and better vocabulary. All in all, I find Mallarmé’s L’après-midi d’un faune an exciting work with many amazing unconventionalities, such as the unique blending of presence/absence, personality/impersonality, alongside wonderful, dream-like re-imagining of the pastoral idyll. I can’t wait to see how some of these ideas motivate Debussy’s composition in the next post.
List of illustrations:
Figure 1. Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (1900) [Creative Commons] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_St%C3%A9phane_Mallarm%C3%A9.jpg (Accessed on 13th February 2020)
Figure 2. Pan and Syrinx by François Boucher (1759) [Creative Commons] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_-_Pan_and_Syrinx,_1759.jpg (Accessed on 15th February 2020)
Alpers, P. (1972) ‘The Eclogue Tradition and the Nature of Pastoral.’ In: College English, 34 (3), pp. 352-371
Austin, L. (1987) Poetic Principles and Practice: Occasional Papers on Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Code, D. J. (2004) ‘The Formal Rhythms of Mallarmé’s Faun’ In: Representations, 86 (1), pp. 73-119.
Ovid (2018) The Metamorphoses of Ovid: Volume I. Germany: Outlook Verlag GmBH.
Peureux, P. (2012) ‘Alexandrine.’ In: Greene, R., Cushman, S. et al. (eds.) The Princeton Encyclopedia of Petry and Poetics (4th ed.) Princeton: Princeton Univeresity Press, pp. 35-6.
Zielonka, A. (2000) ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune: Towards the Total Work of Art’ In: L’Esprit Créateur, 40 (3), pp. 14-24.