Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

An analytical look at the work of master composer Claude Debussy By: Jarrid Crook

Hello once again and welcome to the fourth installment of The Symphonic Listener. In this installment we will be taking a look at one of the masters of Impressionist music, Claude Debussy. You might be asking yourself, “What exactly is Impressionist music? Is it where a composer mimics another?” Well not quite. Impressionist music refers to music written in the style of the Impressionist Movement, which started in the late 19th century and had it origins in the preceding era known as Romanticism.

The Impressionist movement began in the late nineteenth century and continued through the middle of the twentieth, originating mainly in Europe. It evolved out of the plethora of Romantic Period music, and was a sort of rebellion against it. Where Romantic music stressed extremes in both harmony and emotion, Impressionist music aimed more at creating an atmosphere, letting the listener discover their own feelings rather than instructing them what to feel. This was accomplished by the use of dissonances, quartal/quintal harmony and uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. In addition to these techniques, what really gave the music its distinct flavor was the use of different instrument combinations which created unique timbres. Debussy especially found much us in combining the harp sound with that of the flute and other wind instruments.

(Archille)-Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was born into a modest family of non-musicians. At age nine he began taking piano lessons and his proficiency on the instrument was quickly recognized. His talent allowed him entrance into the Paris Conservetoire, where he studied the elements of composition and performance. Not only was it amazing that such a young person was allowed into the school, the fact that he never received any normal schooling makes it all the more impressive. From the start young Debussy was quarrelsome and rebellious, favoring the composing of music that felt “good” rather than that which was generally accepted.

The Man, The Legend

Though Debussy garnered much glory with his command over the piano, he was not happy, and was often too depressed to compose. Thus, in June of 1885, he wrote of his need to follow his feelings and desires, saying, “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas.” It is after this that Debussy started to show his true colors and his compositions start to form what we now consider Impressionist music. In the years 1888 – 1887 he submitted four compositions to the academy, all of which were considered substandard works, but all of which helped solidify Debussy’s unique style of composing.

Don’t Tread On Me!

Prelude to…Nothing?

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in 1894, a mere nine years after he finally gave in to his desires. The piece was originally thought of as the first part of a three movement piece but he never completed the Interlude and Paraphrase Finale. The piece was written alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, in which Schoenberg was also trying some new ideas, mostly to do with chromaticism. On the other hand, people like Richard Strauss and Charles Ives were still composing amazing Romantic music, making it even harder for Debussy’s compositions to be accepted. Luckily for him, another big name composer took up Impressionist composing, Maurice Ravel. The fact that someone else adopted the style greatly helped the movement become more accepted. Though there were many experimental composers in his time, Debussy’s name is still the most prominent mostly because of the genius that this prelude exudes.

Going Through the Forest
Beginning The beginning of the piece is very calm, with the sound of the lone flute awakening the faun. Flute 1:

After a soft interjection from the woodwinds, the horns enter the texture. Like many horn parts written before, this is a call, and I imagine that the horn is the day/woods calling to the faun, beckoning it to awaken. Horns 1, 3

The entire beginning of the piece is very soft, with each different instrument entering the texture without disrupting the flow. I think of Debussy trying to emulate a diver entering the water without creating any waves. Debussy makes sure that each instrument achieves this by having only instruments that are able to comfortably enter softly play at this point. He even goes so far as to have the strings play with mutes so that they can really be in the background. The first harp plays a glissando that gives the piece an ethereal feel. 1 Here, Debussy brings back the flute, having it repeat its opening call. This time though, the flute is accompanied by other instruments, all of which are still playing rather quietly. The string players revert to tremolo to create greater support for the solo. In addition to the strings, the woodwinds also lay down a base, and like before, the horns interject, calling to the faun once more.

Violins, Violas

Horns 1, 3

Soon after the flute exits, a new melody arrives. This one, heard in the oboes and clarinets, is very flowing, reminding me of the wind as the phrase sweeps up and down. Oboe 1, 2

At this point the orchestra is tutti, with the strings removing their mutes while still playing tremolo and all of the horns coming in playing lush chords. The texture gradually thins out in order to make way for the flute solo to appear once again. 2 As the piece progresses the music gets increasingly rhythmic, especially in the flute and harp. This is stands true especially for the harps, whose supportive role gets more important. Harp 1, 2

The original flute call is expanded upon here, changing the start of the motif by a small interval. Flute 1

Like before, sweeping lines reappear and the image of the wind appears in my mind. As the flute plays more complex rhythms, the second flute joins in, strengthening the call. This section ends with the flute resolving all of the dissonance that has been happening, and it sounds extremely beautiful and powerful considering the lack of tonality and cadences up until this point. 3 The clarinet is now the solo instrument, playing a similar figure to the flute call but different enough to be considered a new idea. Clarinet 1

As you can see, the rhythms, continuing like before, are still becoming more complex. The clarinet and the flute trade off solo lines, each one intertwining into a beautiful musical knot. The strings finally remove their mutes and start playing complex rhythms as well, but they are still in the background. Although they remove their mutes, the strings are still kept quiet a lot of the time by being instructed to play pizzicato instead of arco. 4 The oboe enters the texture once again, bringing back with it remnants of the second melody that we heard in the beginning. Oboe 1

The Violins follow suit and also enter with what sounds very much like the second melody. Violin 1, 2

The texture is very lush throughout this section, with all the instruments contributing something beautiful to the texture. The flute and violins each have their own solo moments, and like before with the oboe, they trade similar lines back and forth. 5 The tempo at this point is gaining quite rapidly. The flutes and oboes join forces and trade off lines with the clarinets. Throughout the piece so far we have seen that Debussy likes to incorporate the “call and answer” aspect into the music. I think of this aspect of the piece as the day/woods calling to the faun, and the faun playfully answering back to it. Here we finally see the strings come to the front of the texture, bringing forth a third melody. Violin 1, 2

While Debussy's motivic material is very interesting and well written, for me it is his countermelody and accompaniment writing that is the most impressive. Going on over the violin part is a very punctuated horn part that really compliments the melodic line, while at the same time disrupting it.

Horns 1, 3

6 The horn line leads us right into another solo line played by the clarinet. This one is the most rhythmic music that we have seen thus far and the increased tempo only adds to the excitement of the line. Clarinet 1

The accompanying lines are very calm and loving, the faun is in a state of tranquility. Eventually the clarinet ascends and like the flute before, we get one of those rare tonal cadences. The strings have continuously descending lines until the piece returns to another melody similar to one that we heard earlier. This melody is very loving, almost as if the wind is caressing the faun. All of the solo instruments that we have heard before now play the same melody together, almost as if the faun and the world are one. Flute 1

7 At this point we continue the beautiful harmonies that have been going on in the strings, and we also get a peak at one thing that Debussy is known for using; the whole tone scale. For a few measures he uses the scale in the running triplets and the mood it creates is one of wonderment. The strings eventually break into the front of the texture and once again bring back the sweeping melody that we have come to love. The triplets now play an accompaniment role but are still a very interesting addition to the texture. Soon after they start playing, Debussy adds in a glimpse of the lone flute solo that we heard in the beginning. As you can see, Debussy likes to incorporate his other melodies and motifs into new ideas, creating music that is familiar yet different. This helps to keep the music fresh at all times while not becoming overwhelming with constant new material.

Violin 1, 2

8 The violins subside and the lone flute enters once again with its signature call. This time however, instead of making the rhythm more complex, Debussy does the opposite and simplifies it greatly. Flute 1

Once the flute is finished sounding, the texture and mood of the piece change quite dramatically. The Oboe enters with a very playful, staccato figure. I imagine that the faun is now playing with another small animal, maybe a bird or rabbit. Oboe

9 This new mood quickly ends and the original mood, the one we heard in the beginning, takes its place. Like the last time we heard the flute call, it is again simplified and the call is able to be more beautifully caressed. Then , suddenly, the oboe returns with its playful motif once again. It is as if the flute is the faun and the oboe the other animal. These two instruments have been interacting like this the entire piece and it really adds to the image of two animals frolicking and playing. 10 The playful theme subsides once again and we finally have a true return to the opening music. Debussy brings back the flute call once again, though this time it is played by both flutes which gives it more strength. The strings once again revert to tremolo and the winds either don't play or play very soft chords under the flutes. Once the call has been sounded, the flutes play the triplet figure from before, while the first and second violins come to the front of the texture. Soon the flute call returns though and

this time it is the quietest that the motif has been played. The flutes once again finish the call and it leads right back into some complex rhythmic figures. 11 - 12

Flute 1, Oboe 1 As you can see here, the flute and oboe are once again interacting, trading lines back and forth. Debussy really emphasizes the interaction of these two instruments above all others and I know he did that for a reason. What that reason is I have speculated, but of course only he knows. The rhythms are once again becoming complex, building up the music as we approach the end. At 12 we get another tonal cadence, adding to the beauty of these two sections. After the cadence the horns break out of the texture once more, and like the other solo instruments, bring back remnants of the flute call. Horn 1, 3

Debussy instructs the horns to be muted here, and I believe that he does that not because he wants them to be quiet, but more-so because he likes the timbre that the muted horns create. It fits really nicely with the music that is happening around it. Finally the flute enters one last time, and interestingly enough, outlines a G major triad, a huge step into tonality that the piece hasn't reached until this point. The music subsides to nothing, as the faun disappears into the forest.

You Can't Have Too Much of a Good Thing
Though this guide has gone into detail about some things, there is still a plethora of information about the composer and his music readily available to all those who seek it. These sources can easily be found at your local library and on the Internet. A great source of easily accessible information can be found at This site has a great deal of information about everything that has to do with music. Another site that I found very interesting was This site has specific information about a few pieces as well as a great time line that allows you to easily see what was happening in the composers life in certain years.

If you are looking for more credible sources though, you may want to look into the printed word. Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers is a great start. It also has numerous other composers if you become interested in other music. Another great source is Claude Debussy – His Life and Works by Leon Vallas. This book goes into much more detail than the encyclopedia and you can even get a look into the composer's love life. The great thing about these two sources is that you can get a printed copy of the or look at them one the Internet through

After reading enough about him, you should try to listen to many of his other works. The easiest way to do this is to go to and just type in Debussy into the search box. Numerous recordings will come up and you won't have to do any major searching. Now all of these recordings may not be of the highest caliber, so if you want professional recordings, you should check out This site has numerous recordings of his pieces by professional orchestras. I would suggest listening to Clair de Lune and Isle of Joy before blindly searching for other music by him. These two pieces are quite enjoyable and easy to listen to, perfect for preparing the listener for his more “unique” compositions.

Works Cited • • Score obtained from François Lesure and Roy Howat. "Debussy, Claude." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 26 Mar. 2010 <>. Jann Pasler. "Impressionism." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 26 Mar. 2010 <>. "Après-midi d'un faune', Prélude à ‘L’." The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. 26 Mar. 2010 <>.

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