Born in Cornwall, Ontario, Louise-Andrée Baril obtained a master’s degree in piano at the University of Montreal in 1983. She then went on to study with Maria Curçio in London, England, and attended [...]
They spoke about it
Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, Syrinx
Syrinx, sly elusive instrument, go try To bloom again beside the pools where you await me!
?Mallarmé, The Afternoon of a Faun
Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was first performed on December 22, 1894. Mallarmé, the poet who in 1866 completed the Églogue on which Debussy’s music was based, had only praise to offer:
“I just came out of the concert, extremely moved: a marvel! your illustration of l’Après-midi d’un faune would present no dissonance with my text, unless to go further, indeed, into the nostalgia and the light, with finesse, with malaise, with richness.”
Three years later, Mallarmé sent Debussy a rare print of the poem, accompanied by the following dedication:
O forest god of breathing air,
If you have made your flute aright,
Now hear the way that Debussy
Breathes into it the broad daylight.
The two artists shared similar aesthetic concerns. In 1864, shortly before conceiving what was first titled Improvisation d’un Faune, then Monologue d’un Faune, Mallarmé wrote to his friend Cazalis: “I have finally begun my Hérodiade. With terror, for I am inventing a language that must necessarily spring for totally new poetics, which I could define in these two words: “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces.” Such words could have been said by Debussy, as he also searched for a new language already sensed in 1885 when, for his Diane au bois, he dreamed of that “beautifully cold phrase” that later became the opening arabesque of the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune. Mallarmé and Debussy could not have known that, to some extent, their “Faunes” would contribute to the rebirth of an instrument forgotten for nearly a century.
Romanticism offered little to the flute: none of the great masters, Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Franck or Saint-Saëns, wrote solo works for the instrument, and the virtuosity of a few salon musicians (one thinks of the Doppler brothers) did little to promote its expressive powers.
With l’Après-midi d’un faune, the instrument becomes a symbol, forever associated with the antique god Pan, and therefore with desire, lust, evanescent and lascivious pleasure. Other writers were to follow. In Pierre Louÿs’ sensual Chansons de Bilitis (1895), for example, the flute is present: “For the day of Hyacinths, he gave me a syrinx made of well-trimmed reeds, joined with the white wax that is sweet to my lips as honey.” Twenty years later, the lustful paganism was still in fashion.
In his drama Psyché, Gabriel Mourey naturally called for the flute. Syrinx—Debussy’s original title was la Flûte de Pan—was written for the occasion, destined to be performed during act III in a scene that evokes Pan, a scene troubled by both desire and its fear: “I find him frightening and very beautiful, radiant and dreadful…” (A recent edition of the Brussels manuscript, with Mourey’s indications has been published by Wiener Urtext, with a foreword by Alain Marion.)
Debussy’s Friends: Caplet, Dukas, Pierné, Koechlin, Inghelbercht
At the time Debussy was working on the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, he had already joined the circle of Mallarmé’s famous Mardis, where he met and conversed with his friend Pierre Louÿs, the writers Camille Mauclair, André Gide and Paul Valéry, the painters Renoir and Whistler, and the composer Ernest Chausson, to name but a few. In the last decade of his life, it was Debussy who became the host, surrounded by friends, admirers and disciples.
Among the later, André Caplet (1878-1925) is an important figure. He often collaborated with Debussy, completing such works as Gigues and le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, and orchestrating the Children’s Corner suite and la Boîte à joujoux (he also made piano transcriptions of la Mer and Images). Two distinct periods of his work are presented on this CD. The Petite valse and the Rêverie, both written in 1897, belong to his youth—a time in which the preciosity of the salon was still part of impressionism—while the Improvisations (after the fifteen melodies of le Pain quotidien), written in 1920, reveal a more personal style, detached from Debussy’s influence.
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) also closely collaborated with Debussy, notably during the composition of the little-known Khamma, for which Debussy had only orchestrated the first bars. The Sonata for Flute and Piano was written during these years of collaboration, between 1911 and 1913. The work is more reminiscent of Fauré than Debussy, but it is faithful to the antique and pastoral atmosphere that Debussy was first to introduce.
As for Désiré Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965) and Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), both premiered important works of Debussy—Inghelbrecht conducted the chorus in the Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) and Pierné conducted the first concert performance of the ballet Jeux (1913)—and both spent their career promoting the works of the master.
In December 1920, La Revue musicale published an issue entirely devoted to Debussy. In it were articles by André Suarès, Alfred Cortot, Emile Vuillermoz, Aubry and Inghelbrecht, as well as a “musical supplement” entitled Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, which contained “unpublished works, specially composed as a tribute to Debussy by Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie, Florent Schmitt, Béla Bartok, Manuel de Falla, Eugène Goosens, G. Francesco Malipiero [and] Igor Strawinsky [sic].” La plainte, au loin, du faune… by Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was therefore homage paid to a friend who had died two years earlier.
It was not meant to be a pastiche of the original Faune, but an evocation, filled with sorrow and nostalgia, of what had been the birth of modern music.
© Alex Benjamin