Essay: Debussy Listening "Prelude to the Afternoon

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Debussy Listening

"Prelude to the afternoon of a faun:"

The pastoral dream, set to music

Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the afternoon of a faun," is a haunting, impressionistic symphonic poem of the Romantic period. Fauns were mythological beasts, and what a faun's afternoon might be like is not within the listener's realm of available, real-world experience. These pastoral creatures were said to have goat's horns, ears, legs, and tail. However, Debussy's music attempts to suggest what a faun's perceptions and dreams might be like. The music is nonlinear, rather than offers a conventional narrative arch. Debussy was said to be inspired by hearing Indonesian gamelan to create the sounds of his work. This piece is a fusion of Western Romanticism with the Romantic view of the exotic east. It ignores the traditional use of the diatonic scale. Debussy embraced the octatonic scale and its lack of clear tonality. A 'sketch' of musical coherency is created with vague themes and harmonies.

"Prelude" begins with a flute, a vague and hesitating warble, to suggest the faun. Cautiously, as if the day is breaking, there is a hesitant melody which is rapidly ended with a chord. There is a pause and the rest of the orchestra chimes in. The horn and the harp are particularly notable. A long pause suggests that the faun is arising from dreaming, and once again there is a repetition of the sound of the harp, the horn, and the cautious melody of the flute. Yet the melody is not strong and assertive, but tenuous. Much like a daydream it is not coherent the instruments merely suggest ideas rather than assertively proclaim them.

The strings swell and an oboe takes over from 1:24-1:29. The rest of the orchestra beings to become more prominent, implying a different presence than that of the faun. The harp's cadence from 2:57-3:04 along with the melody of the flute creates a cloud of sound. The delicate, pastoral quality becomes more playful and the faun's flute seems to flirt with the harp. There is a playful, plucking quality which is meant to indicate how the music of wood nymphs and other creatures of the forest might sound.

The string accompaniment begins to build up and the strings and flute meld together in 4:50-5:20, suggesting the faun is becoming part of the larger social world of the forest. The 'forest' itself is literally suggested by the swell of the woodwinds in a manner that is more expansive than the original sound of the oboe. The faun seems to be clearly engaged with another being, in a dream or in reality, a dialogue cumulating with a climatic violin solo at 6:04. The flute returns in 6:28, taking on a kind of coy, responsive quality as it engages with the other instruments, particularly with the oboe. The flute melody, with the violin solo at 7:38, offers a final sense of harmony, as if the faun has now found someone or something or someone he can play with -- or to. The sound of the percussion instrument the triangle ends the revere. The ending is calm, peaceful, and leaves the listener feeling as if he or she is floating in air. The music begins and ends on a dream-like note.

Is the flute the faun? The association with fauns and Pan Pipes would seem to suggest that this is the case. But such a conclusion is not necessarily obvious. The symphonic poem could be seen as a literal depiction of a faun in a forest, but at times the flute could be read as expressing the faun's location in nature, at other times the faun's internal state, and spiritual state of oneness with nature. The faun could be portrayed as simply playing notes on the instrument, or expressing himself to another being. What was and is so radical about Debussy's rendering of the faun is that the work is able to operate both on a literal and symbolic level. It can be read as a spiritual tone painting of being in a simple, pastoral state, of harkening back to a time when the maker of the music, whoever it is, only had to worry about the simplicity of life, rather than modern day cares. There is clear dialogue with other instruments that could suggest nature, nymphets, or other representations of the central figure's consciousness. The playful tune could be the lustful faun daydreaming on a warm afternoon, having sexual fantasies. The faun's thoughts could be represented by flute and when an oboe is being played, it signifies a transition in the faun's daydreaming. Of course, the music may also not be a depiction of a 'real' faun at all, but rather a portrayal of the composer's consciousness as he reflects upon what the life of a faun might be, and how he imagines it.

The atonal nature of Debussy's composition marks it as strikingly modern. Atonality allowed for a wider range of emotional paintings and shadings of mood and color. The image of the faun suggests an innocent, pagan past. But because fauns (much like human beings) are complex figures -- they are tricksters as well as magical beings, with sexual motivations as well as the ability to play divine music -- atonality allows for full breath of tone, emotion, and depth of composition. Atonal music is discursive, and lacks a clear 'center,' much like the life of the faun in the forest. It is not unpleasant-sounding, as the word 'atonal' might initially suggest, and the Debussy work has a floating, light, bright quality. But even the faun's melody is difficult to hum, after it ends, and is somewhat insubstantial in the memory, although it is pleasant to hear again. Like nature itself, the music seems to be constantly changing and ephemeral.

There are a number of Romantic elements in Debussy's challenging of conventional musical structures. First and foremost, there is a challenge to the idea that music needs to conform to a conventional tonal scale, or that a musical work about a particular myth needs to convey a story. Debussy's work is a musical expression of a poem. It lacks conventional narrative enclosure, beginnings and endings and norms. Debussy's work, despite its musical innovation, is also fundamentally pastoral in nature. The Romantics were known for their idealization of nature and the past. They were fascinated by the reflection of how nature could be used to express their inner states of consciousness in their works, as suggested in the Debussy. The sexualized, pagan faun of mythology is also keeping with the Romantic fascination with literature of the past that defied conventional sexual norms. The vague harmonies, fragmented melodies and 'flashes' of color rather than a coherent line likewise defy the listener's expectations. Even the scales played by the faun on his flute sound vague and improvisational, rather than coherent.

Ultimately, Romanticism was looking for a new way to express emotions in music, not ideas, particularly for orchestras and the piano. Colors and shadings of emotion rather than the heaviness of the classical period is manifest in Debussy's work. But as well as Romanticism, there is also a modern ethos to the work. Even the theme of the pastoral and the motivation of the faun are only vague and tentative as he flirts with the rest of the orchestra. These instruments give 'glimmers' of linearity and a singular interpretation, but ultimately resist it.

Debussy's "Prelude to the afternoon of a faun," is ultimately an Impressionist musical poem. It has an expansive background tone like a large, white canvas, which is dotted with smaller, separate bits of color in the form of the contribution of the oboe, woodwinds, and violin. By themselves, when considered, they do not seem to suggest a larger whole. But when considered as pinpoints that make up… [END OF PREVIEW]

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