This composition was inspired by the poem l’après midi d’un faune by Stéphanie Mallarmé. It is a symphonic poem for orchestra and was first performed in Paris in 1894. It is called a prelude because Debussy originally planned to write a suite of three movements – Prelude, Interlude and Final Paraphrase – but the last two movements were never completed.
The poem tells the story of a Faun, half-goat, half-man, in the guise of the god Pan.
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 fully realise his dreams of possession in universal Nature.”
The sound of Pan’s reed pipes open the music and are represented by the flute. This solo is one of the most famous passages in musical modernism. It consists of a descending chromatic passage falling to a tritone below the original pitch and the following ascent. There is very imaginative use of the woodwind, harps and strings in the orchestration whilst keeping the percussion section delicate with minimal use of cymbals. Within the first minute of the work Debussy introduces a whole bar of complete silence allowing the listener to appreciate the musical quality of negative space within the gentle flow of the rest of the work. The main musical themes are introduced by the woodwind using muted horns, harp and strings for the harmonies. He makes frequent use of whole tone runs, uses tritones in both the melody and harmony parts and explores the different voices of the orchestra often throwing the tune from one woodwind instrument to another and, at one stage, allowing the violas to rise above the second violins with the melody producing an unexpectedly rich sound. The slow theme moves fluidly between 9/8, 6/8 and 12/8 – a device that had not been used in this way before.
Diaghilev later used the score as a basis for a ballet for the dancer Nizhinsky which was not well received due to the pagan and somewhat risqué nature of the subject matter. Apparently Debussy was very unhappy with the way his music had been used in this way.
L’après midi d’un faune is one of Debussy’s most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music.