Uploaded by MG Mayes


Prelude to the Afternoon
of a Faun
An analytical look at the work of master composer
Claude Debussy
By: Jarrid Crook
Hello once again and welcome to the fourth
installment of The Symphonic Listener. In
this installment we will be taking a look at
one of the masters of Impressionist music,
Claude Debussy. You might be asking
yourself, “What exactly is Impressionist
music? Is it where a composer mimics
another?” Well not quite. Impressionist
music refers to music written in the style of
the Impressionist Movement, which started
in the late 19th century and had it origins in
the preceding era known as Romanticism.
The Impressionist movement began in the late nineteenth century
and continued through the middle of the twentieth, originating
mainly in Europe. It evolved out of the plethora of Romantic
Period music, and was a sort of rebellion against it. Where
Romantic music stressed extremes in both harmony and emotion,
Impressionist music aimed more at creating an atmosphere,
letting the listener discover their own feelings rather than
instructing them what to feel. This was accomplished by the use
of dissonances, quartal/quintal harmony and uncommon scales
such as the whole tone scale. In addition to these techniques,
what really gave the music its distinct flavor was the use of
different instrument combinations which created unique timbres.
Debussy especially found much us in combining the harp sound
with that of the flute and other wind instruments.
The Man, The Legend
(Archille)-Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was born into
a modest family of non-musicians. At age nine he began
taking piano lessons and his proficiency on the
instrument was quickly recognized. His talent allowed
him entrance into the Paris Conservetoire, where he
studied the elements of composition and performance.
Not only was it amazing that such a young person was
allowed into the school, the fact that he never received
any normal schooling makes it all the more impressive.
From the start young Debussy was quarrelsome and
rebellious, favoring the composing of music that felt
“good” rather than that which was generally accepted.
Don’t Tread On Me!
Though Debussy garnered much glory with his command
over the piano, he was not happy, and was often too
depressed to compose. Thus, in June of 1885, he wrote
of his need to follow his feelings and desires, saying, “I
am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it
regards the path which it ordains as the only right one.
But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my
freedom, too fond of my own ideas.” It is after this that
Debussy started to show his true colors and his
compositions start to form what we now consider
Impressionist music. In the years 1888 – 1887 he
submitted four compositions to the academy, all of which
were considered substandard works, but all of which
helped solidify Debussy’s unique style of composing.
Prelude to…Nothing?
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in 1894, a mere
nine years after he finally gave in to his desires. The piece was
originally thought of as the first part of a three movement piece but
he never completed the Interlude and Paraphrase Finale. The
piece was written alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Piano
Pieces, in which Schoenberg was also trying some new ideas,
mostly to do with chromaticism. On the other hand, people like
Richard Strauss and Charles Ives were still composing amazing
Romantic music, making it even harder for Debussy’s compositions
to be accepted. Luckily for him, another big name composer took
up Impressionist composing, Maurice Ravel. The fact that someone
else adopted the style greatly helped the movement become more
accepted. Though there were many experimental composers in his
time, Debussy’s name is still the most prominent mostly because of
the genius that this prelude exudes.
Going Through the Forest
The beginning of the piece is very calm, with the sound of the lone flute awakening the
Flute 1:
After a soft interjection from the woodwinds, the horns enter the texture. Like many horn parts written
before, this is a call, and I imagine that the horn is the day/woods calling to the faun, beckoning it to
Horns 1, 3
The entire beginning of the piece is very soft, with each different instrument entering the texture
without disrupting the flow. I think of Debussy trying to emulate a diver entering the water without
creating any waves. Debussy makes sure that each instrument achieves this by having only instruments
that are able to comfortably enter softly play at this point. He even goes so far as to have the strings
play with mutes so that they can really be in the background. The first harp plays a glissando that gives
the piece an ethereal feel.
Here, Debussy brings back the flute, having it repeat its opening call. This time though, the flute
is accompanied by other instruments, all of which are still playing rather quietly. The string players
revert to tremolo to create greater support for the solo. In addition to the strings, the woodwinds also
lay down a base, and like before, the horns interject, calling to the faun once more.
Violins, Violas
Horns 1, 3
Soon after the flute exits, a new melody arrives. This one, heard in the oboes and clarinets, is very
flowing, reminding me of the wind as the phrase sweeps up and down.
Oboe 1, 2
At this point the orchestra is tutti, with the strings removing their mutes while still playing tremolo and
all of the horns coming in playing lush chords. The texture gradually thins out in order to make way for
the flute solo to appear once again.
As the piece progresses the music gets increasingly rhythmic, especially in the flute and harp.
This is stands true especially for the harps, whose supportive role gets more important.
Harp 1, 2
The original flute call is expanded upon here, changing the start of the motif by a small interval.
Flute 1
Like before, sweeping lines reappear and the image of the wind appears in my mind. As the flute plays
more complex rhythms, the second flute joins in, strengthening the call. This section ends with the flute
resolving all of the dissonance that has been happening, and it sounds extremely beautiful and powerful
considering the lack of tonality and cadences up until this point.
The clarinet is now the solo instrument, playing a similar figure to the flute call but different
enough to be considered a new idea.
Clarinet 1
As you can see, the rhythms, continuing like before, are still becoming more complex. The clarinet and
the flute trade off solo lines, each one intertwining into a beautiful musical knot. The strings finally
remove their mutes and start playing complex rhythms as well, but they are still in the background.
Although they remove their mutes, the strings are still kept quiet a lot of the time by being instructed to
play pizzicato instead of arco.
The oboe enters the texture once again, bringing back with it remnants of the second
melody that we heard in the beginning.
Oboe 1
The Violins follow suit and also enter with what sounds very much like the second melody.
Violin 1, 2
The texture is very lush throughout this section, with all the instruments contributing something
beautiful to the texture. The flute and violins each have their own solo moments, and like before with
the oboe, they trade similar lines back and forth.
The tempo at this point is gaining quite rapidly. The flutes and oboes join forces and trade off
lines with the clarinets. Throughout the piece so far we have seen that Debussy likes to incorporate the
“call and answer” aspect into the music. I think of this aspect of the piece as the day/woods calling to
the faun, and the faun playfully answering back to it. Here we finally see the strings come to the front
of the texture, bringing forth a third melody.
Violin 1, 2
While Debussy's motivic material is very interesting and well written, for me it is his countermelody
and accompaniment writing that is the most impressive. Going on over the violin part is a very
punctuated horn part that really compliments the melodic line, while at the same time disrupting it.
Horns 1, 3
The horn line leads us right into another solo line played by the clarinet. This one is the
most rhythmic music that we have seen thus far and the increased tempo only adds to the excitement of
the line.
Clarinet 1
The accompanying lines are very calm and loving, the faun is in a state of tranquility. Eventually the
clarinet ascends and like the flute before, we get one of those rare tonal cadences. The strings have
continuously descending lines until the piece returns to another melody similar to one that we heard
earlier. This melody is very loving, almost as if the wind is caressing the faun. All of the solo
instruments that we have heard before now play the same melody together, almost as if the faun and the
world are one.
Flute 1
At this point we continue the beautiful harmonies that have been going on in the strings, and we
also get a peak at one thing that Debussy is known for using; the whole tone scale. For a few measures
he uses the scale in the running triplets and the mood it creates is one of wonderment. The strings
eventually break into the front of the texture and once again bring back the sweeping melody that we
have come to love. The triplets now play an accompaniment role but are still a very interesting addition
to the texture. Soon after they start playing, Debussy adds in a glimpse of the lone flute solo that we
heard in the beginning. As you can see, Debussy likes to incorporate his other melodies and motifs into
new ideas, creating music that is familiar yet different. This helps to keep the music fresh at all times
while not becoming overwhelming with constant new material.
Violin 1, 2
The violins subside and the lone flute enters once again with its signature call. This time
however, instead of making the rhythm more complex, Debussy does the opposite and simplifies it
Flute 1
Once the flute is finished sounding, the texture and mood of the piece change quite dramatically. The
Oboe enters with a very playful, staccato figure. I imagine that the faun is now playing with another
small animal, maybe a bird or rabbit.
This new mood quickly ends and the original mood, the one we heard in the beginning, takes its
place. Like the last time we heard the flute call, it is again simplified and the call is able to be more
beautifully caressed. Then , suddenly, the oboe returns with its playful motif once again. It is as if the
flute is the faun and the oboe the other animal. These two instruments have been interacting like this
the entire piece and it really adds to the image of two animals frolicking and playing.
The playful theme subsides once again and we finally have a true return to the opening music.
Debussy brings back the flute call once again, though this time it is played by both flutes which gives it
more strength. The strings once again revert to tremolo and the winds either don't play or play very soft
chords under the flutes. Once the call has been sounded, the flutes play the triplet figure from before,
while the first and second violins come to the front of the texture. Soon the flute call returns though and
this time it is the quietest that the motif has been played. The flutes once again finish the call and it
leads right back into some complex rhythmic figures.
11 - 12
Flute 1, Oboe 1
As you can see here, the flute and oboe are once again interacting, trading lines back and forth.
Debussy really emphasizes the interaction of these two instruments above all others and I know he did
that for a reason. What that reason is I have speculated, but of course only he knows. The rhythms are
once again becoming complex, building up the music as we approach the end. At 12 we get another
tonal cadence, adding to the beauty of these two sections. After the cadence the horns break out of the
texture once more, and like the other solo instruments, bring back remnants of the flute call.
Horn 1, 3
Debussy instructs the horns to be muted here, and I believe that he does that not because he wants them
to be quiet, but more-so because he likes the timbre that the muted horns create. It fits really nicely
with the music that is happening around it. Finally the flute enters one last time, and interestingly
enough, outlines a G major triad, a huge step into tonality that the piece hasn't reached until this point.
The music subsides to nothing, as the faun disappears into the forest.
You Can't Have Too Much of a
Good Thing
Though this guide has gone into detail about some things,
there is still a plethora of information about the composer
and his music readily available to all those who seek it.
These sources can easily be found at your local library and
on the Internet. A great source of easily accessible
information can be found at www.oxfordmusiconline.com.
This site has a great deal of information about everything
that has to do with music. Another site that I found very
interesting was www.debussypiano.com. This site has
specific information about a few pieces as well as a great
time line that allows you to easily see what was happening in
the composers life in certain years.
If you are looking for more credible sources
though, you may want to look into the printed
word. Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of
Composers is a great start. It also has
numerous other composers if you become
interested in other music. Another great
source is Claude Debussy – His Life and
Works by Leon Vallas. This book goes into
much more detail than the encyclopedia and
you can even get a look into the composer's
love life. The great thing about these two
sources is that you can get a printed copy of
the or look at them one the Internet through
After reading enough about him, you should try to
listen to many of his other works. The easiest way
to do this is to go to www.youtube.com and just type
in Debussy into the search box. Numerous
recordings will come up and you won't have to do
any major searching. Now all of these recordings
may not be of the highest caliber, so if you want
professional recordings, you should check out
www.naxos.com. This site has numerous recordings
of his pieces by professional orchestras. I would
suggest listening to Clair de Lune and Isle of Joy
before blindly searching for other music by him.
These two pieces are quite enjoyable and easy to
listen to, perfect for preparing the listener for his
more “unique” compositions.
Works Cited
Score obtained from www.imslp.org.
François Lesure and Roy Howat. "Debussy, Claude." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music
Online. 26 Mar. 2010
Jann Pasler. "Impressionism." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 26 Mar. 2010
"Après-midi d'un faune', Prélude à ‘L’." The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham.
Oxford Music Online. 26 Mar. 2010