Debussy: Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’ / La Mer

‘The flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music’ — Pierre Boulez

Debussy’s masterpiece provoked a revolution in music, but one brought about by subtlety and intimacy, dwelling on the sheer beauty of musical timbre.


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When?

In 1894, Claude Debussy’s quietly revolutionary Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune premiered in Paris, ushering in a new era in music. Meanwhile:

  • Coca-Cola is sold in bottles for the first time; up until now, it has only been available in glasses, from soda fountains.
  • The International Olympic Committee is founded at the Sorbonne in Paris; it is decided that the modern games will be held every four years.
  • Married women in Britain are allowed to vote in municipal (but not national) elections; single and widowed women have had this right since 1869. South Australia becomes the first Australian colony to give women the vote and allow them to be elected to parliament.
  • In France, a young French Jewish army captain called Alfred Dreyfus is convicted on trumped-up charges of treason; twelve years later he will be exonerated but meanwhile the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ will divide the nation and expose a deep vein of anti-semitism.

Fast Facts

  • Claude Debussy was one of the most influential composers of the modern age, introducing a new musical language which focused on the beauty of each moment of music, rather than seeing music as a journey towards a goal. This allowed him to use dissonances — notes which don’t ‘belong’ to a chord — as colouring or shading of the harmony, not as a clash which had to be resolved. One of the formative influences on his musical thinking was the experience of hearing a Javanese gamelan ensemble performing at the Universal Exposition of 1889: music which was structured in cycles rather than lines, with multiple layers of rhythm and melody superimposed in ‘infinite arabesques’ and ‘inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres’.
  • His music is often called ‘Impressionist’, by analogy with the Impressionist school of painting (Monet, Pissarro, Renoir…) in which light and colour take precedence over form and line in an attempt to capture the experience of seeing the subject, rather than depicting its outer form. Debussy himself hated the label — he saw his art as creating a kind of reality, rather than giving impressions — and his aesthetic was more closely aligned with the Symbolist movement in poetry.
  • It was a work by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (a friend of Debussy’s) which inspired one of the most revolutionary musical works of the age, the ‘Prelude to [Mallarmé’s poem] “The Afternoon of a Faun”’. Its subject is the desires and dreams of a faun (a mythological man-goat creature) in the heat of the afternoon; aroused by the beauty of passing nymphs, he tries to catch them but fails, then falls into an ecstatic sleep, in which he can finally realise his dreams of possession. Debussy’s music, with no sense of a regular beat, and no home key to which it is striving to return, has a langourous freedom which perfectly matches the sensuality of Mallarmé’s poem.
  • With La Mer (The Sea), Debussy expands his musical language into a full-scale symphonic work, drawing on his own childhood memories of the sea.