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Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun

Faun remains, along with La Mer (1903-05), one of the composer’s best-known and most popular works for orchestra.

Composition and premiere: Debussy began writing the piece in 1892 and completed it two years later, in October 1894. The first performance took place December 22, 1894, Paris, at the Société Nationale de Musique, Gustave Doret conducting. The first BSO performance was in December 1904, Wilhelm Gericke conducting. Serge Koussevitzky led the piece at the pre-Tanglewood Berkshire Symphonic Festival August 15, 1936, and the first Tanglewood performance on August 13, 1939. The BSO under Jacques Lacombe gave the most recent Tanglewood performance, on July 9, 2016.

Though the critics were divided in their response to Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune following its premiere on December 22, 1894, by the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris under the direction of Swiss conductor Gustave Doret, the audience’s reaction was unequivocal: the piece was encored. The occasion was Debussy’s first great triumph, and the Faun remains, along with La Mer (1903-05), one of the composer’s best-known and most popular works for orchestra. With his Prelude, Debussy established himself as a composer for orchestra not just with the membership of the Society: a repeat performance of the entire program was given the day after the premiere, with the Society’s doors opened for the first time to the general public.

There is evidence to suggest that Debussy’s Prelude represents the end product of what was originally planned as a score of incidental music to accompany a reading, or perhaps even a dramatized staging, of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s eclogue, L’Après-midi d’un faune. Debussy began his work in 1892 and completed the full score on Oc­tober 23, 1894. During the period of composition, the work was announced in both Paris and Brussels as Prélude, Interludes et Paraphrase finale pour l’Après-midi d’un faune, but there is no evidence at present to suggest that anything but the Prelude ever came near finished form. Before the premiere, the conductor Doret spent hours going over the score with the composer; Debussy made changes until virtually the last moment, and it was reported that at the first performance, “the horns were appalling, and the rest of the orchestra were hardly much better.” But nothing about the perform­ance seems to have diminished the work’s success.

Though the first printed edition of Mallarmé’s poem dates from 1876, L’Après-midi d’un faune in fact went through various stages, being conceived originally as an Inter­mède héroïque. Mallarmé himself at various times described his conception as “definitely theatrical,” as representing “not a work that may conceivably be given in the theater” but one that “demands the theater.” Debussy, who already knew Mallarmé quite well by 1892, would originally have thought to write a score of incidental music. Following Mallarmé’s first hearing of the music, at Debussy’s apartment, and on which occasion the composer played the score at the piano, the poet commented, “I didn’t expect anything like this! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets its scene more vividly than color.”

The history of Mallarmé’s poem is treated in considerable detail in Edward Lock­speiser’s crucial biography, Debussy: His Life and Mind. Lockspeiser points out that by the final version of Mallarmé’s poem, which takes as its overt subject “a faun dreaming of the conquest of nymphs,” transitions between dream and reality had become more ambiguous, with imagery more subtle than the boldly erotic content of earlier stages. The poem plays not only with the distinctions between dream and reality, between sleep and waking awareness, but also with those between consciousness and unconsciousness, between desire and artistic vision. Indeed, in its more literal rendering of Mallarmé’s subject matter and imagery, Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 choreography to Debussy’s score, first performed in Paris by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on May 29 that year with Nijinsky as the faun, scandalized audiences when it crossed the line between artistic allusion and masturbatory fantasy (aside from the fact that the stylized poses of the dancers were generally deemed inappropriate to the fluidity of the musical discourse).

Debussy’s orchestra here is not especially large; while trumpets, trombones, and timpani are entirely absent, the wind section, with its third flute and English horn, is a source for particularly rich sonorities. Nowadays, when listeners may respond to the opening flute solo by sinking back into their seats with complacent familiarity, any fresh look at Debussy’s score is obliged to reveal its boldly imagined instrumental hues as if it were a newly restored painting. Following that opening melody, suggested by the indolent flute-playing of Mallarmé’s faun, glissandos in the harp and distant, evocative horn-calls conjure a dream­like woodland atmosphere heightened by Debussy’s avoidance of clear-cut harmonies: an atmosphere to which the colors of rustling strings, cascading woodwinds, blossoming outbursts from the full orchestra, and, near the magical close, antique cymbals, all prove themselves ideally suited.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.