Introduction: the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Pierre Boulez loved to say that the flute in this piece breathes new life in the art of music. It is, in a way, very simple and very complex at the same time, and it is certainly one of the most challenging pieces to conduct. By the way, here’s the full score if you don’t have a physical one at hand.
François Boucher: Pan et Syrinx, 1759
London National Gallery
Debussy was someone who played out of the box since his conservatory years, to much discontent and disapproval of his teachers: he felt that the harmonic world based on major and minor scales was too restrictive. Why not exploring different modes? Lydian, mixolydian, whole tone, octatonic scales. Incidentally, this set the way for a question that someone would pose later: why use scales and tonality at all?
In addition, he was highly influenced by a group of gamelan (the traditional ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese peoples of Indonesia) who he saw in concert in Paris in 1889: his taste for colorful and exotic instrumentation has its germs in these typical sounds, rich in percussions of all different kinds. Combine this with his love for symbolism poetry and his love for painting and you’ll get a glimpse into what kind of world Debussy’s music was imbued of.
Mallarmé’s poem (of which you can find a translation here) relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half-man, half-animal: he awakes from a dream on a sultry afternoon with images of beautiful nymphs floating around in his consciousness – whether they are real or not we do not really know. After mentally trying to seduce them, the faun eventually sinks back into sleep.
Debussy never tells the story but rather suggests through his music Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods. This is what Debussy’s music is: you need to smell its scents, watching everything through a kaleidoscope of notes that let the imagination run wild.
Beginning the piece
Debussy begins the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with one of the most famous flute passages in the entire repertoire.
Do not conduct the flutist! Simply signal him or her that he/she can begin and start conducting in bar 4. Bear in mind that this whole piece is filled with “push and pull“, and your technique needs to be clear and flexible enough to switch between subdivided and unsubdivided gestures
What’s the tonal center of the piece? If, in fact, there is one? There’s been tons of books on the subject: Debussy tells us that it should be E major, which is, as a matter of fact, how the piece ends. However, he was known to blur the contours of tonality by mixing different scales. The first scale played by the flute, top to bottom, is already a triton, which to our modern ears might not sound special but for the time was pretty out there, especially because here it is not used in a moment of tension but rather in a moment of total calmness and relaxation. Then, on bar 4, Debussy introduces the Lydian scale, through the A#, only to use it as a bridge to a Bb 7, which normally should resolve on an Eb major; instead, being seeing as an altered 7th on the IV degree of the E major scale in lydian mood, it does not resolve at all, in a quasi perfect reminder of a Tristan chord.
All of this to say, that we’re 5 bars into the piece and Debussy has already thrown us around in his harmonic ventures without really leaving the initial key of E major.
How is this going to influence your conducting?
Very simply put, these incursions in different realms of tonality carry a different type of breathing: each phrase breathes differently and it’s going to either push forward all pull backward in order to allow for these subtleties to come through.
Moving on, the flute theme is presented again, for another 3 times: each iteration of the theme is slightly variated, becoming more active, like the faun slowly waking up.
In the third and fourth iterations, Debussy also changes the meter and splits the strings up to 6 parts.
And look at the dynamics, carefully threaded to help out the balance of the orchestra, and let the swells come through without forcing.
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