Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune  

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Pierre Boulez dates the awakening of modern music from "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun", observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."

"If modern music may be said to have a definite beginning, then it started with this flute melody, the opening of the "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (1894) by Claude Debussy." -- A Concise History of Avant-Garde Music, Paul Griffiths

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Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (commonly known by its original French title, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) is a musical composition for orchestra by Claude Debussy, approximately 10 minutes in duration. It was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.

Inspiration and influence

The composition was inspired by the poem L'Après-midi d'un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé, and later formed the basis for a ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. It is one of Debussy's most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music; composer-conductor Pierre Boulez even dates the awakening of modern music from this score, observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.".

About his composition Debussy wrote:

"The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature."

The opening flute solo is one the most famous passages in musical modernism, consisting of a chromatic descent to a tritone below the original pitch, and the subsequent ascent.


The work is scored for three flutes, two oboes, english horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four french horns, two harps, two crotales and strings. Notable is the absence of trumpets, trombones, and timpani.

Although it is tempting to call this piece a tone poem, there is very little musical literalism in the piece; instead, the languorous melody and shimmering orchestration as a whole evoke the eroticism of Mallarmé's poem.

"[This prelude] was [Debussy's] musical response to the poem of Stephane Mallarmé' (1842-1898), in which a faun playing his pan-pipes alone in the woods becomes aroused by passing nymphs and naiads, pursues them unsuccessfully, then wearily abandons himself to a sleep filled with visions. Though called a "prelude," the work is nevertheless complete – an evocation of the feelings of the poem as a whole."

The work is called a prelude because Debussy intended to write a suite of three movements – Prelude, Interlude, and Final Paraphrase – but the later two were never composed.

The Prélude at first listening seems improvisational and almost free-form; however, closer observation will demonstrate that the piece consists of a complex organization of musical cells, motifs carefully developed and traded between members of the orchestra. A close analysis of the piece yields a deep appreciation of the ultimate compositional economy of Debussy's craft.

The main musical themes are introduced by woodwinds, with delicate but harmonically advanced underpinnings of muted horns, strings and harp. Recurring tools in Debussy's compositional arsenal make appearances in this piece: Bracing whole-tone scale runs, harmonic fluidity without lengthy modulations between central keys, tritones in both melody and harmony. The development of the slow main theme moves fluidly between 9/8, 6/8 and 12/8 meters. Debussy explores voicings and shading in his orchestration brilliantly, allowing the main melodic cell to move from solo flute to oboe, back to solo flute, then two unison flutes (yielding a completely different atmosphere to the melody), then clarinet, etc. Even the accompaniment explores alternate voicings; the flute duo's soaring, exotic melodic cells ride lush rolling strings with violas carrying the soprano part over alto violins (the tone of a viola in its upper register being especially sumptuous). And, in the first minute of the piece, Debussy mischievously throws in a bar of complete silence, giving the listener the opportunity to explore the musical quality of negative space within a gentle flowing river of sound.

In popular culture

  • Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is the first animated segment in Italian director and animator Bruno Bozzetto's 1977 film Allegro non troppo. While retaining Debussy's music, the on-screen story instead depicts an aging faun's vain attempts to recapture his youth.
  • The theme features prominently in Portrait of Jennie.
  • The work is also analyzed at the end of the 4th segment of Leonard Bernstein's 1973 Norton lecture "The Unanswered Question". Bernstein corroborates the earlier statement that the piece stretches the limits of tonality, thus setting up the atonal works of the 20th century to come.
  • The Frank Zappa album Weasels Ripped My Flesh features the track "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask", an obvious allusion to the Debussy piece.
  • The main theme was used in the South Park episode "Chef Goes Nanners". It is recognisable by the tritone interval in the main theme and is only heard briefly before transitioning into another piece.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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