Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

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Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Symphonic poem by Claude Debussy
Bakst Nizhinsky.jpg
Illustration for the ballet after the music by Léon Bakst
English Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Catalogue L. 86
Based on L'après-midi d'un faune
by Stéphane Mallarmé
Performed 22 December 1894 (1894-12-22)
  • flute
  • orchestra

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (L. 86), known in English as Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is a symphonic poem for orchestra by Claude Debussy, approximately 10 minutes in duration. It was first performed in Paris on 22 December 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.[1][2] The flute solo was played by Georges Barrère.

Debussy's work later provided the basis for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and a later version by Jerome Robbins.


The composition was inspired by the poem L'après-midi d'un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé. It is one of Debussy's most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music; Pierre Boulez considered the score to be the beginning of modern music, observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."[3]

About his composition 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 finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.[4]

Paul Valéry reported that Mallarmé himself was unhappy with his poem being used as the basis for music: "He believed that his own music was sufficient, and that even with the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is."[5] However, when Debussy invited Mallarmé to attend the premiere performance, Mallarmé wrote to Debussy afterwards: "I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé."[6][7]


The work is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in A and B, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, two crotales and strings. In standard notation: 3 3[1.2.Eh] 2 2 – 4 0 0 0 – 1perc[crot] – 2hp – str (10').

Although it is tempting to call this piece a tone poem, there is very little musical literalism in the piece; instead, the slow and mediated melody and layered orchestration as a whole evoke the eroticism of Mallarmé's poem.

[This prelude] was [Debussy's] musical response to the poem of Stephane Mallarmé (1842–1898), in which a faun playing his pan-pipes alone in the woods becomes aroused by passing nymphs and naiads, pursues them unsuccessfully, then wearily abandons himself to a sleep filled with visions. Though called a "prelude," the work is nevertheless complete – an evocation of the feelings of the poem as a whole.[8]

The Prélude at first listening seems improvisational and almost free-form; however, closer observation will demonstrate that the piece consists of a complex organization of musical cells, motifs carefully developed and traded between members of the orchestra. A close analysis of the piece reveals a high amount of consciousness of composition on Debussy's part.

The main musical themes are introduced by woodwinds, with delicate but harmonically advanced underpinnings of muted horns, strings and harp. Recurring tools in Debussy's compositional arsenal make appearances in this piece: extended whole-tone scale runs, harmonic fluidity without lengthy modulations between central keys, and tritones in both melody and harmony. The opening flute solo consists of a semitone descent to a tritone below the original pitch, and the subsequent ascent. The development of the slow main theme transitions smoothly between 9
, 6
, and 12
meters. Debussy enacts voicings and shading in his orchestration to a high degree, allowing the main melodic cell to move from solo flute to oboe, back to solo flute, then two unison flutes (yielding a completely different atmosphere to the melody), then clarinet, etc. Even the accompaniment explores alternate voicings: the flute duo's crescendo during their melodic cells accompany legato strings with violas carrying the soprano part over alto violins (the tone of a viola in its upper register being especially pronounced).

Main theme

\relative c' {
  \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo "Très modéré" 4. = 36
  \override Score.SpacingSpanner #'common-shortest-duration = #(ly:make-moment 1 8)
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "flute"
  \stemDown cis'4.~(^"Flute"\p cis8~_\markup \italic "doux et expressif" cis16 b \times 2/3 { ais16 a gis } g8. a16 b bis) |  cis4.~( cis8~ cis16 b \times 2/3 { ais16 a gis } g8. a16 b bis) | cis8(\< dis gis e4 gis,8 b4.~\! | b8\> b cis ais4)\!
Ambiguous chord progression

\new PianoStaff <<
  \new Staff \relative c' {
    \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major
    \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo 4. = 36
    \set Score.currentBarNumber = #4 \bar ""
    \set Staff.midiInstrument = "french horn"
    \once \override Staff.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f
    r4 r8 r8 e4~->(\p^"Horn" e8e4-- |
    \time 6/8
    << { \dynamicUp f16(\< bes aes4\>)~ aes4.\! } \\ { r8 r16 c,([\p\< d8)~] d16(\> c d4\!) } >>
  \new Staff \relative c' {
    \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major
    \set Staff.midiInstrument = "clarinet"
    \once \override Staff.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f
    r4 r8 <ais' gis e cis>2.\p\>^"Winds" |
    \set Staff.midiInstrument = "string ensemble 1"
    \time 6/8 \clef bass
    \once \override TextScript #'self-alignment-X = #-1.6
    <bes, aes d, f, bes,>\pp_"Strings/Harp"

\relative c' {
  \clef treble \time 12/8 \key e \major
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo 4. = 44
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #28 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "flute"
  \times 2/3 {gis''16(^"Flute"\f ais gis} \times 2/3 {fis gis fis} \times 2/3 {dis e dis)} cis( dis ais4)~ ais8
Theme – similar to the main theme in chromaticism and contour. Uses a whole tone scale in m. 32.

\relative c' \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" } {
  \clef treble \time 12/8 \key e \major
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo 4. = 36
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "clarinet"

  \partial 8*3 eis4(\<^"Clarinet"\p fis8)\! |
  \once \override Score.BarNumber #'break-visibility = ##(#f #t #t)
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #31 \bar "|"
  g2.~\f\> g4\!~ g32 fis(\< f e)\! dis\p\<([ e f fis] g[ fis f e)\!] dis16(\> e)\! | \time 3/4 f32(\<[ g a b] cis[ dis eis dis)\!] \stemDown cis8(\>[ \acciaccatura { b16[ cis] } b8)\!] a([ \acciaccatura {g16[ a] } g8)] | \stemNeutral f }
Theme – similar contour to the main theme.

\relative c' {
  \clef treble \time 3/4 \key e \major
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo "En animant" 4 = 64
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #37 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "oboe"
  cis'8^"Oboe"(_\markup \italic "doux et expressif" b16 gis fis4~ fis16 b cis gis') | fis( dis e cis b gis fis b cis8 b16 gis) | gis(\cresc b b8)~ b16( d d8)~ d16( b cis d) |
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "violin"
  gis^"Violin" ( b b8)~ b16( d d8)~ d16( b cis d)\!
Secondary theme

\relative c' \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" } {
  \clef treble \time 3/4 \key des \major
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo \markup \concat { "Même mouv" \raise #.5 t \translate #'(-0.8 . 0) "." "et très soutenu" } 4 = 56
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #55 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "clarinet"
  aes''2(^"Woodwinds"\p_\markup \italic "expressif et très soutenu" f4 | ees4. des8~\< des[ f,)\!] | bes'4(~--\mf bes8 aes4 f8 | ees4~ ees8 des4 ces8)
Theme – new melodic idea created by combining fragments of two previous melodies.

\relative c' \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" } {
  \clef treble \key des \major \time 3/4
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo "Toujours animé" 4 = 56
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #67 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "string ensemble 1"
  \override TextSpanner #'(bound-details left text) = \markup \italic "cresc. molto"
  bes'16(^"Strings"\mp des des8)~_\startTextSpan des16( c c8)~ c16 bes(\< c des) | \times 2/3 {ees16(\! f ees} \times 2/3 {des ees des)\stopTextSpan} \stemDown c8~(\( bes~) bes16 aes ges aes\)
Theme – related to main theme.

\relative c' {
  \clef treble \time 4/4 \key a \minor
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo "Un peu plus animé" 4 = 56
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #83 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "oboe"
  r8 g'--~\p^"Oboe" g[ g\startTrillSpan\sfz\>] \slashedGrace a8(\stopTrillSpan g16)\! fis-. f-. e-. e8--\< e32 f( fis g) | g16-.\p
Final chromatic harmonization of the main theme

\relative c' {
  \clef treble \key e \major \time 12/8
  \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \tempo "Très lent et très retenu jusqu’à la fin" 4. = 36 % This marking is one measure earlier than the excerpt
  \set Score.currentBarNumber = #107 \bar ""
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = "string ensemble 1"
  <gis' e b>4.(~ <gis e b>8. <g ees c>16 <fis d a> <f des bes>) <e c g>4.(~ <e c g>8. <f des aes>16 <fis d a> <g ees c>) | <cis gis e ais,>2. <e b gis e b>

The composition totals 110 bars. If one counts the incomplete lines of verse as one, Mallarmé's text likewise adds up to 110 lines. The second section in D-flat starts at bar 55, exactly halfway through the work.

Ballet version[edit]

In 1912, the piece was made into a short ballet, with costumes and sets by painter Léon Bakst, which was choreographed and performed by renowned dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. It proved to be highly controversial because of the dancers' non-traditional movements and because of a moment in which the faun appears to masturbate.

In 1958, a ballet version by Jerome Robbins was made, which has been frequently performed by many companies.


In Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain it is implied that protagonist Hans Castorp listened to Debussy's piece on a gramophone. In the book, the Prélude is one of his favorite recordings, and leads him to daydream about a faun playing pipes in an oneiric landscape.

In popular culture[edit]

Performed by Natalia Ensemble, 2014


  • The theme features prominently in the film Portrait of Jennie (1949), and is used as a musical motif for the ethereal heroine played by Jennifer Jones.
  • Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is the first animated segment in Italian director and animator Bruno Bozzetto's film Allegro Non Troppo (1977). While retaining Debussy's music, the on-screen story instead depicts an aging faun's vain attempts to recapture his youth.
  • A climactic scene from the film Passion (2013) finds the main character attending the ballet version, with a memorable, several-minute-long split screen, with the ballet on one side and the movie action on the other side.


  • The work is analyzed at the end of the 4th segment of Leonard Bernstein's Norton lecture The Unanswered Question (1973). Bernstein corroborates the earlier statement that the piece, with its extensive use of the tri-tone interval and whole-tone scale, stretches the limits of tonality, thus setting up the atonal works of the 20th century to come.[9]


  • It was rearranged and recorded by jazz musician Eumir Deodato for his album Prelude (1973).
  • A synthesiser arrangement was performed by Isao Tomita on his album Firebird (1975).



  1. ^ "Pierre Meylan and Chris Walton. "Doret, Gustave."". Oxford. Retrieved 2009-05-25. 
  2. ^ Fanning, Neil Cardew (2005). All music guide to classical music: the definitive guide to classical music. New York: Hal Leonard. p. 351. 
  3. ^ Boulez, Pierre (1958), "Entries for a Musical Encyclopaedia: Claude Debussy", Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, Oxford: Oxford University Press (published 1991), pp. 259–277, ISBN 0-19-311210-8 
  4. ^ Original French: "La musique de ce prélude est une illustration très libre du beau poème de Mallarmé; elle ne prétend pas en être une synthèse. Il s'agit plutôt de fonds successifs sur lesquels se meuvent les désirs et les rêves du faune dans la chaleur de cet après-midi. Enfin, las de poursuivre les nymphes et les naïades apeurées dans leur fuite, il s'abandonne à un sommeil enivrant, riche de songes enfin réalisés, de pleine possession dans l'universelle nature." Quoted in "Les poètes symbolistes et la musique: de Verlaine à Blok" by Hélène Desgraupes.
  5. ^ Valéry, Paul (1933), "Stephane Mallarmé", Leonardo Poe Mallarmé, trans. James R. Lawler, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (published 1972), p. 263, ISBN 0-7100-7148-5 
  6. ^ Dumesnil, Maurice (1940), "Claude-Achille, Young Musician", Claude Debussy, Master of Dreams, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers (published 1979), p. 181, ISBN 0-313-20775-5 
  7. ^ Lloyd, Rosemary (2005), Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle, Cornell University Press, p. 154, ISBN 9780801489938 
  8. ^ Burkhart, Charles. 2004. Anthology for Musical Analysis, Sixth Edition. p. 402.
  9. ^


  • Hendrik Lücke: "Mallarmé – Debussy. Eine vergleichende Studie zur Kunstanschauung am Beispiel von L'Après-midi d'un Faune". (Studien zur Musikwissenschaft, vol. 4). Dr. Kovac, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-8300-1685-9.

External links[edit]