Essay: Claude Debussy's Lyric Drama, Prelude De L'apres

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Claude Debussy's lyric drama, "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune" is a symphonic poem that captures the spirit of Debussy's innovative style. The piece is elusive, light, and dreamy. Since Debussy is considered a master of suggestion, it seems fitting that we explore a piece that is completely suggestive to a mysterious world. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of this piece of music is how it appears to be without form. However, "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune" represents Debussy's unique orchestral method that includes clouds, festivals, and sirens. Repetition, new harmonic devices, and weightlessness are elements that make this piece stand out as not only a signature piece but an innovative one as well. Debussy's use of tone color as a musical element coupled with his harmonic techniques make him a forerunner among twentieth-century musicians and a close examination of "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune" allows us to see the innovation of Debussy's harmonic vocabulary, structure and orchestration.

Debussy broke tradition delicately and his music demonstrates how he did this. Trezise asserts that his music "dwells in the hazy spaces where sexual fantasies are born, between dream and memory, the conscious and the unconscious, reverie and reality, sleep and wakefulness, and desire and music making. The ambiguous, erotic images and intangible language of the poem are mirrored in the music where tonalities are only suggested and rarely confirmed, were themes remain undeveloped:" (Trezise 131). The music follows the faun with the flute developing into "various musical possibilities, in the end, lulling him back into sleep. Debussy's self-referential, circular music is a musical exploration of the inner workings of the erotic mind" (131). He "evokes the drowsy nonchalance of the faun... By using harmonies that aren't in our books" (145). In a sense, this piece represents the whole of Debussy's work in that it is not traditional and it yearns to be something more. It reaches beyond what is already there and steps into another world. In composing this piece, he moved into something new and left something old behind.

Debussy abandoned the traditional form of music including harmonic, structural, and rhythmic rules when he crafted "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune." The music in this piece forms its own world with its own tonality and colors and this is where Debussy emerges as an innovator of twentieth-century music. That world in the world of the faun and the nymphs and the air that surrounds them is magical and mysterious. Debussy Captures the essence of this world perfectly with this piece, allowing the listener feel as if he or she is floating on air. This mood is enhanced with a shimmer of a string tremolo and the dash of a harp. In addition, we can see how Debussy treated harmony with this piece. Lesure maintains, "Debussy's inventions bear equally on harmony, rhythm, texture and form, and might be summarized as a lifelong quest to banish blatancy of musical expression. His harmony inseparably binds modality and tonality" (Lesure). It was Debussy's style to use a chord for its own unique color and sensuous quality rather than it function alone regarding harmonic progression. In addition, his use of dissonant chords that do not resolve is apparent in this piece. He intends to shift a dissonant chord up or down on the scale and it works very well to his advantage to do so.

Debussy employs harmony as a coloristic device in this piece that evokes a hazy atmosphere with light and transparent timbres. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the piece is how it appears to be improvisational. However, it should be noted that the piece is filled with complex musical cells and it is clear that Debussy carefully developed motifs that can are exchanged between orchestral members. The piece is marked by three main formal divisions with clear articulations at a moderate tempo in ABA form in E major. The piece is composed for flutes, oboes, English horns, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, harps, and strings. It is worth noting that Debussy omits trumpets and trombones. Keeping this in mind, we ca listen to the opening of "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune" with its lithe flute theme and understand why it seems to be removed from the commonly practiced world of tonality. Everything is intentional even though it appears not be so on the surface. This structure is deliberate, according to Lesure. He states, "The major extra-musical structural formant in Debussy's musical language was poetry: this allowed his songs... To be more fluid and tonally adventurous than his instrumental music" (Lesure). The poetic form of the music we hear wants to feel free and, while it may be so, it must follow some sort of form.

In its day, Debussy's form was not standard. To emphasize his nontraditional forms of music, he begins this piece with a flute solo that sets the mood for the rest of the piece in that there are no obvious theme definitions. This instrument can be seen as a symbol of the faun. We also find a chromatic line that is repeated with many rises and falls.

These variations reveal a series of seventh chords as well as parallel fifth chords. A main theme is developed in the first section in the first thirty measures and it emerges through different divisions and harmonies. Time signatures are alternated in this piece and harmonies give way to illusions of cadences but it is worth noting that there are no cadences until the twenty-ninth measure. From here, we find a more complex section of whole tone scales. The next section is again a variation on the same theme, focusing on repetition to create a rhythm. The fifty-fifth measure brings us to the first identifiable different theme, defined by woodwinds. At this point, we begin to take note of the tritone movement in the piece. Repetitions in different keys follow this section, with Debussy's a theme remaining prominent.

Debussy combines all themes at the end of the piece, alternating C. sharp. Debussy was not immediately recognized as a successful innovator. His new ideas were met with skepticism but this was not a deterrent for him. Lesure notes:

From the Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune onwards, he treated the orchestra according to his own sound ideals, creating a very personal mixture from its traditional components: violins commonly in eight, ten or even twelve parts, generous use of harps, woodwind unmixed and seldom used to reinforce other parts, brass veiled and often muted, with very restrained use of trumpets and trombones. (Lesure)

This set of original ideals can be seen with Debussy's use of woodwinds. They are prominent and, in addition, they are used in unusual registers to add texture to the piece. This becomes obvious with the velvety introduction of the flute. Brasses are used but they are muted and they are intended to sound as if they are miles away, contributing the overall elusive quality of the piece. Again, we see Debussy's personal touch on how music is arranged to create a certain mood and tone.

Debussy's large harmonic vocabulary becomes apparent with this piece. He continued to develop different techniques, including the incomplete progression, parenthetical episode, motivic compression, and tonal modeling with this piece. These techniques are what helped Debussy move classical music into the twentieth century. He made unorthodox chord progressions acceptable in the twentieth century by drowning the sense of tonality. While he never wanted to abandon tonality completely, he certainly wanted to weaken it by avoiding any chord progressions that would affirm any particular key. These attempts become apparent as Debussy captures the dreamy nature of the poem with subtle and sensuous timbres. One of the most interesting features of the piece is the bar of silence that allows the listener to experience the musical quality of silence within a piece of music.

Repetition is one technique that make "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune" so successful. Woodwinds with a delicate foundation of muted horns introduce the primary themes in the piece. The main theme is slow and moves sinuously between 6/8 and 12/8 meters. Debussy also employs recurring themes, such as whole-tone scale runs, modulations between central keys, and tritones. It should be noted that voicings are an important aspect of this piece as well. He explores them in this piece with intensity, always allowing the main theme to move fluidly from instrument to instrument. The primary melodic cell in this piece moves from the flute solo to the oboe to the flute again, then to a movement with two flutes that create another element of texture to the atmosphere of the piece. After this shift, the theme moves to the clarinet. It is important to realize the complexity of the flutes in this piece - especially during the section with the two flutes. Here we experience how the music can soar on the melody of the strings. The opening flute melody is "Prelude de L'apres Midi d'un Faune," and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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