Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the symphonic poem for orchestra by Claude Debussy is one of the most iconic works in the history of music, situated right on the cusp of Modernism.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), most often categorised as an Impressionist composer, is actually hard to label because of his great role in the development of modern music. He wrote the Prelude in 1894 inspired by the poem L’après-midi d’un faune by symbolist author Stéphane Mallarmé, published in 1876, itself a landmark in the history of Western literature. It describes the experiences of a lustful mythical creature called a faun, half man — half goat, who, awakened from his afternoon sleep, boasts of his adventures chasing beautiful nymphs.
Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a complete work, even though it was originally intended to be part of a three-movement suite (Prelude, Interlude and Final Paraphrase) that was never finished. The music, seemingly improvisational and as mischievous and impulsive as the creature it was inspired by, is actually a complex and rigorous organisation of motifs traded back and forth between the orchestra’s groups of instruments.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was first performed in Paris in 1894, and in 1912 it was made into a ballet choreographed and performed by Vaslav Nijinsky, a production that proved to be both controversial and influential to the Modernist movement.
Mallarmé’s words to Debussy after hearing the work were:
I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness.