afternoon of faun

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Debussy - Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun…but where are we? And where are we going? We are drawn in by a flute dancing along whole tones, and dipping in and out of more recognizable keys but not landing anywhere that we are familiar with. As cliche as this will sound, this is how Debussy draws us into a more magical world, an uncertain world, a sound space that is full of light and color but always through a veil, or through clouds, there is never a clear picture. With this in mind I understand why Pierre Boulez would argue this 1894 symphonic poem to be the begining of musical Modernism. What I did not know was that this poem wasn’t based off of just the idea of a faun, but rather it was inspired by a literal poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé at first was disappointed to hear Debussy had written music off of his work, feeling that it was egotistical of composers to think they can build off of or improve poetry. However, Debussy invited him to the premiere, and afterward Mallarmé wrote to him saying he was deeply moved and felt Debussy did a fantastic job portraying the feel of his words. In Debussy’s own words, he writes, “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.”

Vaslav Nijinsky in The Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes and first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 29 May 1912. Comœdia illustré (June 15, 1912). Photos by Studio Walery.

The style of the ballet, in which a young faun meets several nymphs, flirts with them and chases them, was deliberately archaic. The dancers often moved across the stage in profile as if on a bas relief. The ballet rejected classical formalism. The work had an overtly erotic subtext beneath its façade of Greek antiquity, ending with a scene of graphic sexual desire.

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli – © Dave Morgan

“Afternoon of a Faun”, choreography by Jerome Robbins, The Royal Ballet