Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

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This article is about the musical composition by Claude Debussy. For the ballet based on it, see Afternoon of a Faun (Nijinsky).
Performed by Natalia Ensemble, 2014

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 December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret.[1][2]


The composition was inspired by the poem L'après-midi d'un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy's work later provided the basis for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. It is one of Debussy's most famous works and is considered a turning point in the history of music; Pierre Boulez has said he considers 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] It is a work that barely grasps onto[clarification needed] tonality and harmonic function.

About his composition Debussy wrote:

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, Maurice Dumesnil states in his biography of Debussy that Mallarmé was enchanted by Debussy's composition, citing a short letter from Mallarmé to Debussy that read: "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]

The opening flute solo is one of the most famous passages in the orchestral repertoire,[citation needed] consisting of a whole tone descent to a tritone below the original pitch, and the subsequent ascent.


Principal theme About this sound Play 

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.

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.

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 development of the slow main theme transitions smoothly between 9/8, 6/8, and 12/8 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 (mm. 1 - 4)

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major \tempo "Très modéré" 4. = 44 \stemDown cis'4.~(^"Flute"\p cis8~ 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 (mm. 4 - 5)

{  \new PianoStaff <<
    \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major \tempo 4. = 44 r4 r8 r8 e4~->(^"Horn" e8e4-- | \time 6/8 << { f16( bes aes4)~ aes4. } \\ { r8 r16 c,([ d8)~] d16( c d4) } >> }
    \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble \time 9/8 \key e \major r4 r8 <ais' gis e cis>2.^"Winds" | \time 6/8 \clef bass <bes, aes d, f, bes,>^"Strings/Harp" } >> }

Theme (m. 28)

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 12/8 \key e \major \tempo 4. = 44 \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(mm. 31 - 32) - similar to main theme in chromaticism and contour. Uses whole tone scale in m. 32

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 12/8 \key e \major \tempo "au Mouvt" 4. = 44 \partial 8*3 eis4(\<^"Clarinet"\p fis8)\! | 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)\!] cis8(\>[ \grace { b16[( cis)] } b8)\!] a([ \grace {g16([ a)] } g8)] | f }

Theme (mm. 37 - 40) - similar contour to the main theme.

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 3/4 \key e \major \tempo "En animant" 4 = 72 cis'8^"Oboe"( b16 gis fis4~ fis16 b cis gis') | fis( dis e cis b gis fis b cis8 b16 gis) | gis( b b8)~ b16( d d8)~ d16( b cis d) | gis^"Violin" ( b b8)~ b16( d d8)~ d16( b cis d) }

Theme (mm. 55 - 58)

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 3/4 \key des \major \tempo "Même mouvt et très soutenu" 4 = 56 aes''2(^"Woodwinds"\p f4 | ees4. des8~\< des[ f,)\!] | bes'4(~->\mf bes8 aes4 f8 | ees4~ ees8 des4 ces8) }

Theme (mm. 67 - 68) - new melodic idea created by combining fragments of two previous melodies.

  \relative c' { \clef treble \key des \major \time 3/4 \tempo "Toujours animè" 4 = 56 bes'16(^"Strings"\mp des des8)~ des16( c c8)~ c16 bes( c des) | \times 2/3 {ees16( f ees} \times 2/3 {des ees des)} c8~( bes~ bes16 aes ges aes) }

Theme (m. 83) - related to main theme.

  \relative c' { \clef treble \time 4/4 \key a \minor \tempo "Un pue plus animé" 4 = 56 r8 g'--~\p^"Oboe" g[ g\trill\sfz] \grace a8( g16) fis-. f-. e-. e8-- e32 f( fis g) | g16-. }

Final chromatic harmonization of the main theme (mm. 107 - 108)

  \relative c' { \clef treble \key e \major \time 12/8 \tempo "Très lent et très retenu jusqu' á la fin" 4. = 44 <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> }

Ballet version[edit]

Illustration for the ballet by Léon Bakst

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 a moment in which the faun appears to masturbate.


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]

  • It was rearranged and recorded by jazz musician Eumir Deodato for his 1973 album Prelude.
  • Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is the first animated segment in Italian director and animator Bruno Bozzetto's 1977 film Allegro Non Troppo. While retaining Debussy's music, the on-screen story instead depicts an aging faun's vain attempts to recapture his youth.
  • The theme features prominently in the 1949 film Portrait of Jennie, and is used as a musical motif for the ethereal heroine played by Jennifer Jones.
  • The work is also analyzed at the end of the 4th segment of Leonard Bernstein's 1973 Norton lecture "The Unanswered Question." Bernstein corroborates the earlier statement that the piece stretches the limits of tonality, thus setting up the atonal works of the 20th century to come.
  • A synthesiser arrangement was performed by Isao Tomita on his 1975 album Firebird.
  • A climactic scene from the 2013 film Passion 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.
  • A production music version (arranged by Charlotte Georg) was featured in The Ren & Stimpy Show's Powdered Toast Man.


  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. ^ Burkhart, Charles. 2004. Anthology for Musical Analysis, Sixth Edition. p. 402.


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

External links[edit]