Claude Debussy

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 10 Minutes
Genre: Symphonic Poem
Time of Creation: 1892–1894
World Premiere: December 22, 1894 (Paris)

Table of Contents

Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in 5 Sentences

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a great example of the amalgamation of the arts in France at the end of the 19th century: the model for the piece was a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, already 30 years old at the time of composition. Debussy, however, did not set this poem to music literally, but merely drew inspiration from its symbolist spirit. The result is one of the central compositions of musical Impressionism, marking a turning point in music history (see “Highlight 1” below). Mallarmé got to hear Debussy’s composition, as Debussy played several early versions for him on the piano.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Highlight 1: A flute solo that is significant in music history

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune begins with a famous flute solo in which lies most of the music-historical significance of Debussy’s composition. The solo is so unusually constructed that many people (including famous musicians such as Pierre Boulez) see it as the birth of new music:

Highlight 2: Oops...

The rest of the orchestra tries to join in, and then – oops. There is a biiiig pause. Perhaps Debussy was really aware of what a music-historically significant beginning he had written. You have to digest it first:

Highlight 3: Fabric of timbres

A new attempt follows, and this time it works. Debussy develops step by step a dense fabric of different timbres:

Highlight 4: Spotlight oboe

In the course of the piece, pretty much every instrument is allowed a spotlight – at the end, for example, the oboe:

3 Questions and Answers about Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Question 1: Has Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune been used in other contexts?

Yes. Ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky turned Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s composition into a famous ballet that is still frequently seen today.

Question 2: What did Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune mean for Debussy's career?

While Debussy’s composition was received rather moderately by critics, the public reacted positively. The 32-year-old Debussy achieved his artistic breakthrough with it.

Question 3: Why is the piece called "Prélude"?

The piece is called “Prélude” because Debussy originally intended to add two more movements to the work. However, this never happened, so that the Prélude stands alone as a work of art until today.

2 Recommended Recordings of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Recording 1: London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth (live, 2017)

A performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune stands or falls on the solo flute. Good thing the London Symphony Orchestra has an excellent principal flutist in Gareth Davies….

Recording 2: hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (live, 2014)

…just like the hr-Sinfonieorchester with Sebastian Wittiber:

1 Quote about Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

The music of this Prélude illustrates Mallarmé's beautiful poem in a very free way; it does not really want to retell it, but to awaken the various moods in the midst of which the desires and dreams of the faun develop. Tired of pursuing the timid nymphs and shy naiads, he surrenders to a climax of pleasure, to which leads the dream of a desire finally fulfilled: the perfect possession of all nature.

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