Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy

So I am going to try to thwart your expectations every chance I get, starting right now. Were you expecting Beethoven or Bach? If this was a classical radio station, yeah, you could probably expect those great composers to take priority. However, Claude Debussy is the man who inspired this blog, so we shall begin with Claude Debussy. This piece is called Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. For those who might not know, a faun is a Greek mythological creature, which is half-man half-goat. They are known for being lazy, lecherous, and darn fun to have around in a party.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in the 1890’s. This piece is considered late Romantic by some and early Contemporary by others. What that really boils down to is that this was written during a time of transition. France is known for balking at the status quo, and Debussy was no different. The Romantic period was known for its emotional edge, but the French did not believe music needed to be so dour and serious all the time. Debussy represents a huge turning point in classical music.

So, upon listening to this piece of music, what should be listening for? First of all, do you like it? Is there something that makes it stand out? Do you think you would recognize it again if you heard it? What makes it different from everything else?

Well, for starters, the opening line- its hard to forget. That’s because the opening line is just a simple scale, but NOT the one we usually use, which is called a diatonic scale (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do). In this piece, we do not have a diatonic scale. We have a chromatic scale. Have you ever looked at a piano and wondered why the heck there are white keys and black keys? That’s because the piano is made to play a diatonic C scale. The white keys are Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. The black keys are the notes in between. A chromatic scale is when you play ALL of the white keys AND the black keys.

By writing this piece chromatically instead of diatonically, we lose our sense of Do (home base). While that can be jarring, in this instance, it serves to create an ethereal sound. It’s easy to lose yourself in music like this as the music never seems to touch solid ground. Interestingly, the notes the make up the beginning of this piece create a tritone. Tritones were known in classical music to be the devil’s chords, and they were actively unused. Debussy purposely uses these notes, however, to push us even further away from home base. By starting us with notes we never hear together in “normal” music, we find it hard to grasp what the “correct” notes ought to be.

The texture is another memorable aspect of this piece. It alternates between delicate and lush. The flute at the beginning of the piece plays alone, acting as possibly the sound of a faun waking up and taking up his panpipe. As the piece continues, more and more instruments join in, creating a beautiful cacophony. Does this represent delight? Exhilaration? Passion? Considering the character of the faun, these are probably all true at one point or another.

This piece of music is interesting in that it is a musical representation of a poem by Stephane Mallarme. You can find a translation of the text here. Do you think the music accurately portrays what the poem is trying to say? Is it more important to literally translate the poem to music or to capture the mood of the piece?

So, this was my very first blog entry. I hope someone out there enjoys it. I have no idea what tomorrow’s music will be. I will have to wait for inspiration to strike. Thanks for reading!