Debussy's Orchestral Music

Program cover for the Ballets Russes' 1912 season, showing Nijinsky as the Faun. Cover and costume by Leon Bakst.

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Page numbers refer to the book, "Afternoon of a Faun," where these works are discussed.

Prélude à "L'Après-midi d'un faune"

(Prelude to "Afternoon of a Faun")

To read about Debussy's music and the Mallarmé poem that inspired it, see "About the Faun" on this website. (In the Faun book, see pages 1-9 and 139-153.)

Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra

Afternoon of a Faun (Ballet performance)

In 1912 Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, persuaded Debussy to allow the presentation of Afternoon of a Faun as a ballet, with choreography by the young Vaslav Nijinsky, who would also dance the role of the Faun. Nijinsky’s stylized choreography, and especially his final lascivious moments as the Faun, caused a scandal in Paris. Debussy loathed the ballet. It did not remain long in the company’s repertoire but was reconstructed and revived by the Joffrey Ballet in 1978, with Leon Bakst’s original sets and costumes, and Rudolf Nureyev dancing the Faun. (See Faun book, pages 276-278.)

           Joffrey Ballet, with Rudolf Nureyev as the Faun

Nijinsky and tennis mates in Jeux (1913).

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La Damoiselle élue

Apparently it was Debussy’s deep interest in Edgar Allan Poe that brought him to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1850 poem, “The Blessed Damosel,” a kind of sequel to “The Raven.” Where Poe tells of a lover’s grief on the death of his beloved, Rossetti’s blessed damozel is in heaven now, yearning for her earthly lover. The composer trimmed several stanzas from Sarrazin’s French translation and in 1888 completed what he once called “a little oratorio which strikes a mystic and slightly pagan note.” It was given its first performance in 1893. (See Faun book, pages 81-83.)

Sylvia McNair, soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Tanglewood

Festival Chorus; Seiji Ozawa, conductor; Boston Symphony Orchestra

Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre

Debussy’s music was getting little attention in Paris, so, with the blockbuster Grieg Piano Concerto in mind, he tried to write a conventional concert piece with wide appeal. He wrote quickly, but during rehearsals for its premiere, in 1890, he abruptly withdrew the piece. Over the years, he tinkered with the Fantaisie, but ultimately he allowed no performance in his lifetime. In three movements, the piece employs well-worn harmonies and virtuoso tropes, but has an undeniable youthful charm. (See Faun book, pgs 83-85.)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor;

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Nocturnes complete on one video

    1. Nuages (Clouds)

    2. Fêtes (Festivals)

    3. Sirènes (Sirens) 

A composer once remarked that if grass could be heard growing, Debussy would have set it to music. In fact, in the first movement of Nocturnes, he set clouds to music. Fêtes, he said, was a "distant memory of a festival in the Bois de Boulogne”: dancing and merriment; distant footsteps and trumpets as a procession of guardsmen approaches. In Sirènes, a wordless women's chorus sings the seductive song of the Sirens, the beautiful sea creatures who lured sailors to their death. (See Faun book, pgs 187-193.)

Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra

Rhapsody for orchestra and saxophone

The Rhapsody was commissioned by Elise Boyer Hall, a Bostonian. At 47, she learned to play the saxophone and soon commissioned several composers to write for this relatively new instrument. Debussy accepted the commission, and the fee, but had little interest in this “ridiculous . . . reedy animal with whose habits I’m largely unfamiliar,” he told a friend. Though he worked on the piece in 1903, he never quite finished it. After his death it was completed and orchestrated by his friend Roger-Ducasse. (See Faun book, pg 223.)

Federico Mondelci, alto saxophone; Seiji Ozawa conductor,

Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala

La Mer (The Sea)  complete on one video

    1. De l’Aube à midi sur la mer (Dawn to Midday on the Sea)

    2. Jeux de vagues (Play of the Waves)

    3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and Sea)

Debussy described the sea as an instrument of strong and beautiful music, never out of tune. He began thinking about writing a sea symphony in 1903. He finished the work in March 1905, amidst the turbulence and scandal caused by his affair with Emma Bardac and the suicide attempt of his abandoned wife, Lilly. La Mer was first heard in concert in October 1905 and, despite the disapproval of his critics, became an enduring favorite of the symphonic repertory. (See Faun book, pgs 224, 233, 236-238)

Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra


Images pour orchestre  complete on one video

    1. Gigues

    2. Ibéria 

          Par les rues et les chemins (On the Streets and Roads)

          Les parfums de la nuit (Perfumes of the Night)

          Le matin d'un jour de fête (Morning of a Holiday) 

    3. Rondes de printemps (Rounds of Spring)

Images for Orchestra was developed from folk-dance music of three distinct European cultures. In Gigues, the oboe d’amour (an alto oboe) creates an underlying melancholy and restlessness. The dominant theme is “The Keel Row,” a jaunty Scottish folk tune. Rondes de printemps, the third of the Images, is a typically Debussyan rhapsody suggesting the colors and pleasures of spring. The longest and most substantial section of Images is Ibéria, which is itself divided into three movements and is often performed as a stand-alone orchestral showpiece. Ibéria presents a picture of Spanish life full of spice and salt, the everyday flavors, with none of the voluptuous romanticism of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, for example. (See Faun book, pgs 273-275.)

Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam



Debussy agreed to write the ballet Khamma, in September 1910, when Canadian dancer Maud Allan offered 20,000 francs. The setting: In the temple is a stone statue of the Egyptian god Amun-Ra. The city is under siege, and young Khamma is asked to dance for the god in order to obtain his protection from the enemy. She performs three exotic dances. The god agrees to save the city. Khamma continues dancing in an ecstasy of joy, then suddenly falls dead. The citizens celebrate their victory, and Khamma's body is blessed by the priest.

   The composer and dancer fought for years: She wanted the ballet's length doubled and the orchestra diminished by half; he refused. The orchestration was done, under the composer's direction, by Charles Koechlin, but the work was never performed in Debussy's lifetime. (See Faun book, pgs 275-276.)

Riccardo ChaillyRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam

Jeux (Games)
In 1912, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes had created a scandal with Nijinsky's crudely erotic ballet to the music of Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy was appalled, but he agreed to write a new ballet for Diaghilev and Nijinsky when a large sum of money was offered. The result was Jeux, which debuted in 1913 to near unanimous derision. Set on a lighted tennis court at night, and performed by a man and two women dressed in tennis attire, the ballet portrays a flirtation among the three dancers and ends in a three-way kiss that shocked the audience. The ballet failed, but the witty, propulsive score survived in concert halls and is recognized as a genuine Modern masterpiece. (See Faun book, pgs 278-282.)

Pierre Boulez, The New Philharmonia Orchestra 

La Boîte à Joujoux (The Toy-box)

Inspired by his daughter Chouchou and her toys, Debussy wrote this charming ballet score in 1913. The scenario was based on an André Hellé story: a toy solider is in love with a girl doll who prefers a nasty clown doll; a battle ensues between toy soldiers and clown dolls. The ballet was to have been danced by children or marionettes, but it was never performed in his lifetime, and rarely since. His friend André Caplet orchestrated the score for its first performance, in 1919, with adult dancers. (See Faun book, pg 283.)

André Cluytens, Orchestre NRF