Born in 1862 in St-Germain-en-Laye, France, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, where he both excelled and startled professors with his defiance; he would reportedly sit at the piano and play chords that rejected all the textbook rules. Like many composers before and since, Debussy’s work was greatly inspired by poetry, and the composer was also friends with many of the day’s poets, including Stephane Mallarmé.
It was Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) that inspired Debussy to write what was likely meant to be a three-part orchestral work with the titles Prélude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale. Debussy completed the Prelude in 1894 – as just a one-movement work. He revised it up until the very last minute and the premiere was at the Société Nationale de Musique in December 1894, with Gustave Doret conducting.
The flute’s theme, recurring throughout the work, represents the faun, though it is not intended as a literal translation of the poem. The line – solo at the very start – moves chromatically down to a tritone below the original pitch, then ascends back to the original pitch. The line progresses throughout the piece and its metamorphoses account for the Prelude’s richness of texture and harmony. We even hear Debussy’s increasing interest in non-Western scales and timbres (he would use the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan more in his later works, and continued to write using the whole-tone scale).
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is nothing if not a great timbral achievement. Debussy uses a relatively small orchestra by the standards of the late 19th century. Brass and percussion are all but omitted. Crotales, the only percussion, are used sparingly and expertly. The only brass are four horns, while the wind section includes a third flute and English horn. Debussy also gives significant material to two harpists, and asks for a number of subtle shadings from the strings, including mutes, and playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard) and pizzicato techniques. Debussy produces a remarkable degree of color from his orchestra.
Mallarmé’s poem – about “a faun dreaming of the conquest of nymphs” – transitions between dream and reality, giving Debussy the perfect arena to explore his new language. Prelude stands as a turning point in music history and had profound effects on the generation of composers that followed. Debussy had established an incredibly innovative style – both in terms of the way the orchestra is treated, and in his approach to harmony and musical structure. In so doing, Debussy found the perfect way to capture the dream-state of the afternoon of the faun.