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Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune'

Debussy: Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune'

'I was completely seduced, transformed, overwhelmed' wrote the conductor Gustave Doret in his autobiography Temps et Contretemps. He was recalling the unforgettable day in 1894 when Claude Debussy showed him the proofs of his new composition Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune', which Doret was shortly to conduct for its world premiere performance. It was to be a great challenge for the young Doret, who was making his debut appearance at the Societe Nationale de France, which had commiss-ioned the new work from Debussy. Immediately Doret saw the music he realised he had taken on a daunting responsibility as nothing remotely like it had ever been heard before. When, on the 22nd of December 1894, Debussy's new ten-minute miniature was played in public for the first time, a totally new form of musical expression was released, and it was to have a lasting effect on future generations of composers.

From the very beginning of his student days around 1878 and 1879 Debussy had been an experimental rebel. At the Paris Conservatoire he startled pupils and teachers with his piano improvisations of unheard of chords and harmonies, and on one occasion he even spontaneously imitated the sounds of the new buses rumbling down the boulevards. The avant-garde and unpredictable in music fascinated him, especially the works of Wagner, even though he had ambivalent feelings about him, and Mussorgsky, whose strange but free sounding world of Boris Godunov profoundly affected him. On a piano playing trip to Russia he was strongly affected by the improvisations of gypsy musicians in their Moscow cabaret shows, so totally unlike anything he was being taught at the Conservatoire. Ten years later, in 1889, he saw them again at the ambitious Exposition Universelle at Paris, and at that same exhibition the 27-year-old Debussy was captivated by the sounds of the Gamelan, the oriental group of musicians from Java. For him their exotic sonorities and melodies circulated freely like fresh air, as did the sounds and sensations of the words in poems by the new symbolist writers such as Stephane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. Not long afterwards Debussy spoke of his search for a new, improvisatory sounding style of music that would sound free and spontaneous, forever changing, and ethereally evocative of the elusive but powerful mysteries of nature. Now, in some of his important formative works, especially the early songs, there were suggestions that he was beginning to create a new musical language as his remarkably individual expression was emerging. In the Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune' his genius and originality flowered in full blossom for the first time and the world was stunned by his new music of floating, rippling impressions. Suddenly Debussy revealed unimagined expressive potential for the future, and composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Ravel, Messiaen and Boulez were vitally influenced by him.

The Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune' is Debussy's musical impression of the poem 'L'Apres-midi d'un faune' by Stephane Mallarmé. It evokes the dreams and desires of a faune on a hot summer's afternoon as, overcome by the shimmering heat, he imagines he sees ravishing nymphs at play. The spontaneous sounding flute solo that opens and permeates the work represents the faune. The work's originality is summed up by one of the most important and influential avant-gardists of the last 50 years, Pierre Boulez: "Modern music was awakened by L'Apres-midi d'un faune".

(c) Jon Tolansky

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