We were inquisitive (this can happen when playing the viola) about the typography on the front of the part – see above. Why the inverted commas? Did Debussy write another piece with that title with this for its prelude? The answer is worth having if only because Pierre Boulez, the master moderniser, called this single 1894 piece ‘the birth of modern music’. It is. The buoy that music sailed round.
In the inverted commas there is a finished work. It's a poem by Mallarmé written in 1866, eventually published in 1876. If you are curious like us, the poem is hard work but not impossible; it seems best if you read it aloud (and are pleasing to bear in mind that Proust said Mallarmé was a good fellow but insane when he picked up a pen.) The poem is at the end of the programme and here is a link http://fdnet.perso.infonie.fr/oeuvres/apres.htm . A translation is is printed at the end of these notes.
Here is its shape to help you, as the French say, to ‘assiste’ at the concert: the faun has been asleep, as he says having ‘sucé la clarté du raisin’ (sucked up the clarity of the grape). He speaks. He’s been dreaming of nymphs and wants to retrieve his dreams. Although he starts clearly enough ‘Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer’ he’s not so sure that they are dreams. He says ‘Aimai-je un rêve?’ (Was it a dream I loved?). This is a very early Symbolist poem: Mallarmé was following Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal was 1857) and the breakout idea was to make the writing express feelings. Not unlike the music, the rest of the poem is wafty, but there are some handholds. It’s the faun playing his flute; he addresses it as Syrinx – a reference to the Greek myth in which Pan falls for the nymph Syrinx, who leaps into a river to avoid him and becomes reeds, which Pan then gathers for a Pan pipe to remember her by; he calls this flute ‘instrument des fuites’ (flights, in more than one sense). It has ‘deux tuyaux’ – two pipes, in the myth Pan’s had seven – but what could Debussy do? The faun points to ‘un solo long’ and ‘une sonore, vaine et monotone ligne’. At the end he is off, going back to sleep – ‘il faut dormir’. This programme note is simply unpicking the inverted commas and not rehearsing the music - you can hear all of this.
Why was the poem written in 1866 and the music in 1894? The mould-breaking expressions and descriptions of feeling – which bled across the arts - started with the poets. The artists followed – the energetic flowering of the Impressionists is commonly set as 1866-84. The musicians came last – first performance of The Ring cycle was still 1876. The birth of modern music came almost 40 years after the poets started and, say, 20 years after the painters.
To complete our puzzle, the house elves of the Breitkopf & Härtel music publisher’s edition explain that Debussy did plan a free-form 3-movement faun symphony in 1892. But he got excited and distracted by the appearance of the Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande in that year – his opera took ten years before it appeared in 1902. By 1894 only our prelude had been written and Debussy never went back to the plan. The two other movements were a bit uninspiringly called Interlude and Paraphrase, so it is hard to imagine what any other music he might have come up with could have possibly said.
Best wishes from the viola section. (Notes: John Sanderson 2023)
L’Apres-midi d’un Faune
Eclogue- The Faun
These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.
or if those women you note
Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:
But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say
Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?
No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless
Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles
No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs
To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze
Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe
Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,
Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,
The visible breath, artificial and serene,
Of inspiration returning to heights unseen.
O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour
Not seeing by what art there fled away together
Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there
The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever
Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,
Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.
Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss
That softly gives assurance of treachery,
My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery
Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;
Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,
The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,
That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,
Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse
The beauties round about by false notes that confuse
Between itself and our credulous singing;
And create as far as love can, modulating,
The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank
Or back followed by my shuttered glances,
Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.
Try then, instrument of flights, O malign
Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!
I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length
Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings
Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:
So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness
To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,
Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky
And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,
Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.
O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.
‘My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal
Neck that drowns its burning in the water
With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of hair slipped by
In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!
I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised
By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)
Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.’
I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy
Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides
Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking
The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering
Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one
To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned
By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.
‘Happy at conquering these treacherous fears
My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle
Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:
For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh
In one girl’s happy depths (holding back
With only a finger, so that her feathery candour
Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,
The little one, naïve and not even blushing)
Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,
This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,
Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.’
No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness
By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:
You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already
Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:
And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.
At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves
A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:
Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus
Setting in your lava her heels so artless,
When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.
I hold the queen!
O certain punishment…
No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!
Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.