Concert Notes

Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”

Notes by TŌN horn player Douglas Nunes

Within seconds of hearing its mischievous flute melody, we realize we’ve entered the magical world of Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Based on a poem sharing the same title, this work follows the mythical faun as it explores and interacts with the ever-changing environment surrounding it. Debussy describes the music as “a very free illustration . . . a succession of settings through which the Faun’s desires and dreams move in the afternoon heat.” Unlike German composers like Strauss or Mahler whose works focused on a strong, heroic protagonist, Debussy was more concerned with creating the atmosphere surrounding his main character. He extracts a myriad of textures from the orchestra through unorthodox instrument combinations that give a glimpse into the world of sound he’s creating.

In the world of this work, the faun is represented by a descending, meandering melody initially played by the flute. The famous ballet choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballet Russes even portrayed the mythical creature with disjunct movements in stark contrast to the usual technique. Even the poem’s author, Stéphane Mallarmé, was surprised and thrilled at how well Debussy and Nijinsky captured his work. I share the same impressions as Mallarmé, in that this piece feels like the faun is wandering through an enchanted forest, shrouded in fog. Each new sound slowly pulls back the veil: wispy strings embodying the wind blowing through the trees, the harp personifying droplets of water in a pond, and the winds maintaining the role of the faun, sprinkled with any other magical creatures you can imagine. From lush, green forests to a flowery meadow and even a glistening stream, the orchestra eventually takes us back to the entrance of this magical forest, as the faun peeks its head from behind the trees one last time, as if to say goodbye, before retreating to its mystical world we had the pleasure of glimpsing.