Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 20, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Where Beethoven, with his “Eroica” Symphony, and Stravinsky, with Le sacre du printemps, violently toppled the walls of the reigning conventions with their musical thunderbolts, Claude Debussy, in 1894, rent the walls asunder, too – but with a breath and a sigh.
The inspiration for Debussy’s quiet revolution was a poem by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) inspired in turn by a François Boucher (1703-1770) painting in the National Gallery in London. The final result was music of unprecedentedly hazy, shimmeringly suggestive lasciviousness, its melodies – with a faintly Eastern cast – strange and undeveloped, its harmonies elusive, its tonalities ambiguous. Its musical syntax, like none before, was one that would profoundly affect composers of the following century. Pierre Boulez observed, “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself… the reservoir of youth in that score defies depletion and exhaustion.”
Mallarmé’s poem relates the dream of a flute-playing faun – half man, half animal – of seducing two sleeping nymphs. With a transparent tonal language dominated by flute, woodwinds, and cellos that waxes and wanes, Debussy suggests – never merely translates – Mallarmé’s descriptions of moods.
In his Afternoon of a Faun Debussy composed not only a staple of the modern (as distinct from the Romantic) repertoire, but also advanced, quietly, a revolution in sound and form that would introduce a new conception of music, with nuances of sound, color, and chords and a completely unschematic form (which can best be understood as a layering of several kinds of form), as well as new ways of using individual instruments, and the transparency of the orchestral writing. All of this so impressed – rather than shocked – the audience at the premiere in Paris in December of 1894 under Gustav Doret that they insisted the work be repeated immediately.
— Herbert Glass