Posted in Project 1: Debussy and Impressionism

Research Point 4.1, Part B: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Continuing on from the previous post where I wrote about my experience reading Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (1876), in this part of the research I will look into Debussy’s composition Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune that was inspired by the poem.

Symbolism and Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk

To commence, under the influence of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which I mentioned in Part 2 of the unit here, a major preoccupation of the symbolists is the synthesis of arts. According to Zielonka (2000: 15-6), Mallarmé, who had written a prose article on the topic in 1885, worshipped Wagner’s conception of the total work of art and was fascinated by the idea to have his poem L’après-midi d’un faune expressed in visual, musical, and chorographical contexts. Having been ‘very struck by the new beauty’ of Debussy’s Wagner-influenced Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1887–89), Mallarmé had been keen to meet the composer and discuss a dramatic presentation of his work to be mounted at the Théâtre d’Art in Paris with musical accompaniment. However, this project never came to fruition and there’s been no direct collaboration between the poet and the composer.

I will briefly pause to mention that I find the Wagnerian influence here very interesting and something I haven’t ever considered in relation to Debussy’s compositions. In fact, I used to consider Debussy’s music very anti-Wagnerian before this research, so it was eye-opening to find out that at the beginning of Debussy’s career Wagner’s operas used to be the main subjects in his musical circles. Debussy even visited Bayreuth to hear the works of his then musical idol, but soon distanced himself from the composer, stating that “Wagner was a sunset that was mistaken for a sunrise” (cited in Brody, 1978: 380-1). Nonetheless, he still used many Wagnerian techniques in his compositions.

Debussy’s illustration of Mallarmé’s poem:

Creative evocation, not confined translation of the source material.

Moving away from the brief reflection of the Wagnerian influence on Debussy, despite the project at Théâtre d’Art failing through, L’après-midi d’un faune still captured the composer’s musical imagination and he started creating a composition inspired by Mallarmé’s verses. Originally, Debussy intended to write a musical triptychPrélude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale (Lesure, 2019: 103), though only the first came to be actually composed. Before I delve into Debussy’s Prélude, I’d like to also mention that this wasn’t the first musical treatment of the poem. An Italian composer, Vittorio Emmanuele Lombardi, had already published a Glose à l’Après-midi d’un faune in 1887 (Zielonka, 2000: 18). However, this work represents quite a line by line translation of the poem into music, with the verses written out above the notation.

In relation to Lombardi’s work, when I listened to Debussy’s piece, I found that it never simply translates, but suggests the content and moods encapsulated in Mallarmé’s alexandrines. Having said that though, there are many parallels that might be noticed in the structure, such as the correspondence between 110 verses and the composition being 110 bars long, or a bar of silence that seem to recall the blanks in the poem. However, comparing to Lombardi, Debussy’s music seems to be more self-aware of its limitations in not being able to keep the exact pace with poetry. In this sense, by leaving the uncertainty for the listener to guess whether some formal similarities are moments of pure coincidence, unwitting imitation or deliberate choice, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune seems to acknowledge the differing syntactical processes between music and poetry.

This was in fact something that resonated with Mallarmé himself, who wrote to the composer: “The only way in which your illustration of the Afternoon of a faun is discordant with my text is that it goes further, truly, in its evocations of nostalgia and of light, with such finesse, uneasiness and richness” (Hugon, 2016). Along these lines, rather than being completely trapped in the formal structures of the poem through literal translation, the self-awareness of the differing nature of the two mediums in Debussy’s composition allowed the piece to find its own original way of expressing and projecting certain poetic ideas as unique musical qualities that extend beyond the words. Thereby, liberated from being a strict formal equivalent of the poem, in my opinion, the only true structural match is the ambiguity, though manifested in dissimilar ways in the two works.

In this direction, as I have mentioned in the previous post, while Mallarmé’s poem conveys the ambiguity in tension with the framework of the rhyming alexandrines; the Prélude’s ambiguity is communicated through the chromatic wanderings between keys that give the piece a sense of freedom, though still somewhat resembling the conventional ternary form and perhaps even sonata form in the development section. But leaving the structural concerns aside, I will now focus on the music itself.

At the outset of the large first setion, what I would define to be bars 1-30, the flute is clearly associated with the faun, wandering chromatically across the stave, just like the faun is roaming through his memories in the poem. The theme travels from C# to G-natural (Fig. 1) – the unstable interval of the augmented fourth, in which the lower G serves, in my opinion, as a kind of anti-dominant, dividing the C# octave exactly in half. To me, this unsteady tonal plan in the opening phrase really accentuates the faun’s insecure oneiric memory of the two nymphs in the dualities of reality/illusion and presence/absence in the conflicting nature of his longing. By embodying faun’s faltering consciousness though this elusive tonality, I believe Debussy also arouses and frustrates the listener’s own desire for tonal resolution, situating the audience into the faun’s perspective of his fluctuating experience.

Fig. 1. Solo flute theme (bars 1-4)

All this is reflected in the peculiar form of the theme too – rather than being firmly introduced, it gradually emerges from a more textural background often with many repetitions. For instance, like the way the flute wanes into the silent bar 6, only to start repeating the last motif from the previous phrase in bars 8-9 before the second repetition of the main phrase, when the oboe takes over (Fig. 2). Personally, I found bars 17-20 very absorbing in how the rising G#-B-C# motif repeats as if it is stuck in a brief loop (Fig. 3), which reminded me of a glitch when playing music digitally or physically of the gramophone getting jammed – something I found very cinematic, and perhaps even synesthetic, in its peculiar effect.

Fig. 2. Flute waning and waxing before the theme’s second repetition (bars 5-10)

Fig. 3. Repetition of the rising G#-B-C# motif (bars 17-21)

Moreover, I really enjoyed the instrumentation, especially the way the harp highlights the dreaminess. This might be a good moment to mention that there are two harps, which might invite the analogy of the two nymphs. Recalling also the tension between the dramatic and poetic expression in Mallarmé’s L’après-midi d’un faune, where different bits serve as faun’s inward duologue reflections and others as his spoken monologues, I find the manner in which the instrumentation waxes and wanes in relation to the solo sections of the first flute to embody that aspect of the poetry.

Continuing on, the third repetition of the theme in bar 21 introduces the focal point of the relative E major key, presenting the second tonal foci of the piece that will remain in tension with C# until the very end. Although the bifocal tonality of C# minor and E major represents the main pitch-class of the piece, with many modulations arising from the enharmonic respellings and respaced in different positions, there are also moments when other pitch classes appear, like already in bar 4 and 11 with A# and D pitch classes. With the third and fourth appearance of the theme, the faun’s constant effort to recapture the memory of the nymphs, which has just emerged in the two previous repetitions, seems more and more imprecise and frustrating, embodied as motivic deconstructions of the theme that the faun cannot precisely remember.

The second section is the developmental part of the composition, which treats both the old material from the first section and also introduces two new themes. After opening on bar 30/1 with a brief chromatic and whole-tone elaboration of the main theme, there is a disappearance of any soloist activity for the flute in the section, which is comparable to the way the faun rejects the Virgilian trope of the pastoral piping. With the instrumentation similarly rejecting the solo flute as a way to compensate for faun’s lost pursuit, a new impassioned theme emerges in bar 36 (Fig. 4), entirely different from the solo flute theme that is characteristically anti-Austro-Germanic. Instead, this theme is almost Wagnerian in tone with a sense of gradation, which reminded me of the faun’s resolve to speak in the poem. Following this, only a shadow of the first section’s flute theme is retained in the new solo clarinet theme starting on bar 51, which serves as a variation on its chromatic skeleton (Fig. 5). The shadowy effect is further supported by the flute being doubled into a darkened timbre, creating both a mysterious and somber effect and also association to the dualities in faun’s personality.

Fig. 4. The impassioned Wagnerian oboe theme in the developmental section (bars 36-40)

Fig. 5. Clarinet theme in the developmental section (bars 51-53)

After more development of the musical material, with the reappearance of the solo flute, what I would call the third section begins. Although the main theme reappears, it seems decisively transformed from the original by being played initially in E major. This is even more so in the second repetition of the theme in bars 79-82 (Fig. 6), which is in the far-removed Eb major key and played by the oboe, being the faun’s most remote and strained attempt at remembering. Although he seems to manage to arrive back at the C# minor from where he started, nevertheless, the theme is harmonized differently, which allows the melody to completely dissolve towards the five-bar coda, leading to the final E major. In my opinion, this produces a feeling of hanging in the air, which reminds me of the final line of the poem in which the nymphs become only shadows that the faun says farewell to. Furthermore, I also find the parallel between ‘the star of wine’/‘constellation’ mentioned in Mallarme’s poem and the high-pitched ethereal timbre of the crotales introduced near the end.

Fig. 6. Flute theme repeated in Eb major (bars 79-82)

In conclusion, although I have attempted to divide Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune into sections, I wouldn’t consider them too strictly, since as I have previously mentioned, Debussy largely treated the form with freedom almost as a ‘graph’ of faun’s attempted memory, often making parts overlap in the defiance of the existing, Classical and Romantic ways to treat form, development, and variation. The statements of the themes are also ambiguous themselves, so that although the audience hears multiple versions of the main solo flute theme, nonetheless, in retrospective, the clearest statement of its idea seems to be missing in the first place. Just like everything and nothing might have happened in the consciousness of Mallarmé’s faun, the same can be said of the music consisted of many elusive parts. With all this said, I believe Debussy’s prelude employs the poetic motivation and stimulation from its source in a very inspiring way, escaping the literal translation and its structural confinement in favour of innovation in the novel harmonic perspectives, tonal ambiguity and merging of themes. This all makes the piece not only offer an effective general impression of faun’s failed desires, but as Boulez (1991) denoted, it represents a “new breath to the art of music” itself. Ultimately, I believe many of these aspects will influence not only my work in the assignment 4, but also my future compositional output as well.


Boulez, P. (1991) Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 259-77.

Brody, E. (1978) Debussy on Music by Claude Debussy, François Lesure and Richard Langham Smith. In: Journal of the American Musicological Society, 31 (2), pp. 376-382.

Hugo, G. (2016) ‘DEBUSSY, C.: 4-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 2 – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune / La Mer / Images (Armengaud, Chauzu)’ [Online] At: (Accessed 21st February 2020)

Lesure, F. (2019) Claude Debussy: A Critical Biography. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Zielonka, A. (2000) ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune: Towards the Total Work of Art’ In: L’Esprit Créateur, 40 (3), pp. 14-24.

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