Claude Debussy: Prélude à “L'après-midi d'un faune” (Prelude to “Afternoon of a Faun”)
The strangely named Prelude to “Afternoon of a Faun” was the first piece in which the young Debussy established his unique voice as a composer. The piece made his international reputation by its originality, its unashamed sensuality and its dreamy delicacy. Here, music-lovers understood, was a composer writing in a completely new way. And other young composers, in many different countries, quickly began to copy the unusual style of this music, without – most of them – ever quite finding their way into the heart of what Debussy had imagined.
Most pieces that change the course of musical history – Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, or Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – are on a large scale, loud and dramatic. What is so special about Debussy’s piece is that it is mostly quiet, scored for a very small orchestra, and lasts just 10 minutes. Seldom has such a gentle work of art had such a powerful influence.
But first the title: one of the greatest poets in 19th century France was Stéphane Mallarmé. In 1876, he published his poem The Afternoon of a Faun, which he had been working on for more than 10 years. That first edition, with beautiful hand-made illustrations by the great painter Edouard Manet, caused a sensation. The poem was immediately recognized as one of the most beautiful in the French language.
The poem tells of a faun – a mythical creature in Ancient Greece, half-goat, half-man, filled with uncontrolled erotic desires – who wakes one afternoon after a deep sleep in the heat of the day – and immediately starts remembering the several young girls with whom he had been making love that morning:
These nymphs I would perpetuate.
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?
Debussy originally intended a longer piece in several movements, which would follow the course of the faun’s dreams. This "prelude" was intended as just that, a prelude, before the rest of the piece. But when he finished it, in 1894, he realized that the music was complete. He had said everything he wanted to say and there was no need to add anything.
Many later musicians including Stravinsky and Schoenberg have noticed that the most original and unforgettable part of this piece is the unaccompanied flute solo at the very beginning, certainly one of the most famous flute solos in Western music. The flutist captures our attention by rocking very quietly back and forth between two notes, half an octave apart, without suggesting any definite key but only a hazy shimmer of sound, before unexpectedly crystalizing into a tiny suggestion of a melody, like an ancient folk-tune, but remembered in a dream.
Claude Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra
From one of Debussy’s most famous pieces to one of his least known!
Several years before the Prelude to “Afternoon of a Faun”, when the composer was still in his mid-20s, and still a graduate student living in the Villa Medici in Rome, he decided to write a virtuoso piece for piano solo and orchestra. The eventual result – he worked on it for many years – was this delicious Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra.
Debussy was clear in his mind he did not want to write a concerto. The word "Fantaisie" (Fantasy) suggests something far more improvisatory and less serious, encouraging the audience to feel relaxed and expect the unexpected. But at the same time, like many concertos, this Fantaisie does actually have three movements – roughly, fast – slow – fast, with the second and third movements running straight on without a break (something that happens in lots of concertos). And it’s very concentrated, as far as its melodies go. There are only two themes, which come back in all three movements.
But that’s not what will most surprise the listener. What makes this piece unlike almost anything else Debussy ever wrote is its amazing lushness. It’s like a huge bowl of soft fruit with sugar and added cream on top! The piano part is extremely ornate, the player surging from top to bottom of the instrument in kaleidoscopic cascades of notes. And the orchestral part is practically romantic!
When Debussy finished the first version of this piece, it was scheduled for performance. But at the last moment the conductor cancelled the concert. For some years, Debussy, disappointed, hoped for a performance, and he kept taking the score of the shelf and changing bits of it. But in the end, he decided to move on, and this Fantaisie was never performed in the composer’s lifetime.
By the time the piece was finally published and played, in 1919, Debussy had been dead for 2 years, and the First World War had come to an end; a new musical world had opened up. Debussy’s Fantaisie now sounded old-fashioned, and not many people were interested in playing it. This work was almost forgotten.
But in recent times, more than a century later, a number of modern players have rediscovered it and found it makes a delightful concert piece, thrilling for the audience. Among these pioneers is Jean-Yves Thibaudet, our magnificent soloist who revels in this music’s opulent harmonies and its fiery ending.
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Mahler and Debussy were almost exact contemporaries (Mahler was 2 years older). They knew one another, met on several occasions, and in 1910 Mahler conducted Debussy’s music in New York as part of a season designed to introduce American audiences to the latest music from Europe.
Unsurprisingly, neither man much liked the other’s music (composers often don’t like one another’s work) and Debussy once rudely walked out of one of Mahler’s symphonies in the middle. But the two men had more in common than might first appear, apart from their age. Both were deeply influenced (though in different ways) by the music of Wagner. Both were master orchestrators (though in different ways). Both were tremendous innovators (though in different ways). And both had a deeply sensual side to their imagination (though again in different ways).
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, indeed, is probably his most sensual work. Scored for slightly smaller forces than he used in his other symphonies (it has no trombones and tuba), it abounds in gorgeously colorful effects, often heightened by percussion, especially ringing bell sounds like triangle, sleigh bells, tam-tam and glockenspiel, all of which introduce a feeling of dazzling light into the instrumental palette.
The most remarkable feature of this symphony is the last movement, with its enchanting soprano solo. In fact, this movement began life as a simple song, which Mahler had composed quite a few years before (around the time Debussy was working on his Prelude to “Afternoon of a Faun”). At that early period of his artistic life, Mahler was obsessed with a famous early 19th century collection of German folk-poems compiled – or rather, most of them invented – by two distinguished German poets, Brentano and von Arnim, both of whom belonged to the circles around Beethoven and Germany’s greatest poet Goethe. That was a great period of discovering folklore and national identity, and the poems in this Brentano/von Arnim collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, paint a Romantic picture of the German lands as abounding in simple peasants and beautiful fields and woods.
Mahler wrote many gorgeous songs using the lyrics of these poems, quite a few of which end up being reworked as melodies in his symphonies, but none as obviously as here in the Fourth. The lyric "Das himmlische Leben" (Heavenly Life) suggests a delightful vision of Heaven as a child might imagine it:
We revel in heavenly joys
Leaving everything earthly behind us…
We lead the life of angels
So, we are completely happy.
We dance and jump
And skip and sing…
In the heavenly tavern
Wine costs nothing
And the angels bake the bread…
Produce of every description
Grows in the garden,
Everything you could want…
There is no music on earth
Which could compare to ours…
Preceding this child’s description of the afterlife, Mahler has three movements for orchestra alone.
The first overflows with beautiful ideas, including what sound like more child-like themes looking forward to the song in the finale, and a strange moment when we hear a sinister call on the trumpet, an intrusion of the darkness of the world into the sweet unreality of childhood. This call Mahler later re-used as the start of the Fifth Symphony, where it creates an openly tragic effect.
The second movement includes one of the strangest effects in Mahler’s orchestral language: a beautiful and very difficult solo violin part for the concertmaster, but with the composer making things more difficult by asking the player to use a violin tuned DOWN a half-note. This forces the player to perform the music in a different way, which gives it a kind of sourness, like a folk-fiddler in some tavern in a remote Austrian village. In his first sketches for this movement, Mahler even gave it a title: "Freund Hein spielt auf" (Friend Harry strikes up his fiddle). "Freund Hein" or "Friend Harry" was a folk-name for Death in among German peasants, and this movement is clearly a Dance of Death (as depicted in many ancient art-works) where Death is a fiddler, leading women and men in a sinister folk-dance into the other world.
The third movement is one of Mahler’s greatest inspirations, a long and hauntingly emotional set of variations on two contrasted melodies, both of which, once heard, can never be forgotten. In this music, the composer digs deep into the human soul. And it is the contrast between the emotional depth of these variations and the childlike (and only apparent) innocence of the first and last movements that gives this symphony its special place in the hearts of music-lovers all over the world.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY