About the Faun

Claude Debussy in 1884, the year he won the Prix de Rome; portrait by Marcel Baschet.

Stéphane Mallarmé

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Claude Debussy

Achille-Claude de Bussy was born on August 22, 1862, near Paris. His parents were very poor, and not at all musical. When he was about eight, his aunt hired someone to teach him piano, but after a month the teacher said Achille had no talent for the instrument. A year later, through an improbable sequence of events, an accomplished pianist named Mme Mauté heard him play and, convinced of his abilities, offered to teach him, gratis. In 1872 Achille won entry to the Paris Conservatory, the finest music school in France, to be trained as a concert pianist.

     In a few years it was clear that Achille didn’t have the skill or dedication to be a virtuoso, and he concentrated instead on composing. But he rebelled against the strict rules of harmony he was taught — the centuries-old musical language of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and countless others. It was German music, not French. It wasn’t the language in which he could express himself, and he knew it. But he suppressed his radical ideas to please the judges of the prestigious Prix de Rome, and with his oratorio L’Enfant prodigue, he won France’s highest honor for young composers. 

     In the late 19th century, Richard Wagner's operas, intensely dramatic, long, and sometimes ponderous, were all the rage, dominating European stages. The challenge Debussy set for himself was to invent a new post-Wagnerian musical language, a French music, a music of his own.

     He found inspiration and creative ideas in unlikely places — in the Javanese gamelan, whose music was completely unlike European music; in the paintings of Turner and Whistler; in delicate Japanese prints and ceramics; in Edgar Allan Poe's haunting stories; and in Maeterlinck’s symbolist stage plays. 

     Debussy’s mind was whirling with all these new ideas when he set out to write a musical meditation on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, “L’Après-midi d’un faune” (Afternoon of a Faun).       

Stéphane Mallarmé and the “Faune”     

    Mallarmé was 23 years old in 1865 when he began his poem "L’Après-midi d’un faune.” In a letter he said, “I have found an intimate and peculiar manner of depicting and setting down very fugitive impressions. What is frightening is that all these impressions are required to be woven together as in a symphony." Mallarmé revised his poem numerous times over the years. In 1876, his final version was published, with illustrations by Manet. It was Mallarmé’s first book. 

     "L’Après-midi d’un faune" has a simple narrative: One afternoon, on a sun-baked slope of Mount Etna, a faun is sleeping. (The faun of myth has the head and

torso of a man, the horns and hind quarters of a goat.) He wakes from a dream; lustfully pursues the two reluctant nymphs of his dream, or fantasizes about them; plays a long soliloquy on his flute; attempts to resurrect the dream; and drifts back to sleep. 

       Mallarmé, the most influential of the symbolist poets, was famous not just for his beautiful, inscrutable verses, but also for his Tuesday evening literary salons, the Mardis. At the Mardis you might encounter André Gide, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, or Paul Gauguin. Wagner was often a topic of conversation.

     In 1890, when Debussy was 27, he was introduced to Mallarmé, who had heard some of his songs. Soon he was a frequent guest at the Mardis. Welcomed there as an equal, Debussy discovered that the symbolists had found a new way to express themselves, using the mellifluous sound of words and phrases to create a language akin to music. Debussy absorbed Mallarmé’s rich symbolist writings into his musical thought as completely as he had devoured the gamelan.

    Mallarmé and Debussy became friends, and soon they began discussing a theatrical interpretation, or a staged reading, of "L'Après-midi d'un faune." Debussy set out to write a suite of incidental music for the poem, but the staging of “Faune” never took place. By October 1894, when Debussy completed his work, it was not a suite but a sublime ten-minute tone poem. In this work Debussy emerged as a mature artist, in full command of his technique.

     When Debussy’s Prélude à "L'Aprés-midi d'un faune" was first performed, it was considered by many to have revealed Debussy in a different light and to have brought something new to the concert hall. It was his breakthrough work. In his earlier compositions, Debussy ignored many rules of harmony, orchestration, and form, but he never found a way to break completely with musical orthodoxy until he passed into the symbolist domain of Stéphane Mallarmé.

     Debussy followed Faune with three symphonic masterpieces: Nocturnes, La Mer, and Ibéria; with the first symbolist opera, Pelléas et Mélisande; with Jeux and other ballet scores; and with dozens of modernist piano pieces that have become staples of the concert hall. In 1908, Debussy’s health began to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with cancer in 1915. He died in March 1918, survived by his wife Emma and their daughter Chouchou.


Prélude à L'après-midi

d'un faune

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by 

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Listen Now to

Debussy's Prelude to the

Afternoon of a Faun