Debussy’s Premieres

Often identified as marking the birth of modern music, Claude Debussy’s nine-minute orchestral composition radically subverted traditional ideas of musical structure and tonality. It also deployed striking timbres and complex, fluctuating rhythms to create a dreamlike mood. Debussy’s innovations made him one of the most influential composers in twentieth century music.

Summary of Event

Claude Debussy premiered his watershed composition, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) on December 22, 1894. His unprecedented use of sustained atonal passages dislocated the diatonic scale (a division of the octave into five whole-tone and two half-tone intervals), which had organized Western music since the beginning of classicism. His chromaticism—moving melodies and chords through a series of half-tone steps—drew upon the compositions of such precursors as Hector Berlioz Berlioz, Hector , Frédéric Chopin Chopin, Frédéric , Robert Schumann Schumann, Robert , and Richard Wagner. However, his whole-tone progressions, the opposite musical extreme, represented the most decisive innovation in Western music until Arnold Schoenberg’s perfection of the twelve-tone scales fifteen years later. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)
Debussy, Claude
Schoenberg, Arnold
[kw]Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Premieres (Dec. 22, 1894)
[kw]Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Premieres, Debussy’s (Dec. 22, 1894)
[kw]Afternoon of a Faun Premieres, Debussy’s Prelude to the (Dec. 22, 1894)
[kw]Faun Premieres, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a (Dec. 22, 1894)
[kw]Premieres, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Dec. 22, 1894)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)
Debussy, Claude
Schoenberg, Arnold
[g]France;Dec. 22, 1894: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Premieres[5970]
[c]Music;Dec. 22, 1894: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Premieres[5970]
Mallarmé, Stéphane
Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay

In 1889, when Debussy returned to Paris after a two-year fellowship in Rome, he had already gone twice to the annual festival of Richard Wagner’s Wagner, Richard
[p]Wagner, Richard;and Claude Debussy[Debussy]
Wagner, Richard
[p]Wagner, Richard;operas operas in Beyreuth. Debussy became one of the French popularizers and performers (in piano reductions of the orchestral operatic scores) of Wagner’s music, whose harmonies and parallel chords appeared in Debussy’s later orchestral works. He acquired several other influences as well: The Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay inspired Debussy’s use of the flute in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The complex rhythms and the non-Western scales and timbres of Javanese gamelan music, which Debussy heard shortly after his return, also influenced him.

Debussy’s original inspiration for his landmark piece was a long poem, L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876; The Afternoon of a Faun, 1956), by the master of French Symbolism, Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé, Stéphane Mallarmé hosted a famous writers’ and artists’ salon on Tuesday afternoons. Debussy attended regularly and became friends with the older man. The two had even planned to collaborate in a stage production of The Afternoon of a Faun. In it, apparently, Mallarmé would have read sections of the poem aloud, interspersed with the performance of sections of Debussy’s composition. Mallarmé postponed the event indefinitely, however, perhaps out of anxiety over the public reception.

In both the poem and the musical work, a faun—a mythic creature from ancient Greece, Greece, ancient half-man and half-goat—awakens on a hot, drowsy summer afternoon from a dream in which he was about to ravish two nymphs he had surprised and seized while they were sleeping. They elude him and slip away, diving beneath the water of a pond. He tries to recapture them, first by retelling the adventure as a story, then by playing a melody on his panpipes that would recall the experience. When these two attempts fail, the faun fantasizes briefly about raping the queen of the gods, but, fearing punishment, he withdraws by falling asleep again, to seek the nymphs in his dreams.

Debussy’s whole-tone and chromatic motifs thoroughly undermine a listener’s sense of a dominant tonality. His orchestral composition opens with a dreamy, unaccompanied flute line starting on G-sharp, which proves to be the relative minor tone of the E-major scale. The flute plays the E, resolving the scale, only after thirty measures, during which it has drifted chromatically and played two “tritones,” series of three successive whole-note intervals (an augmented fourth, or exactly one-half octave). Commonly known as the diabolus in musica (the devil in music), this traditionally forbidden sequence dislocates a melodic line from any clear sense of a dominant tonality.

Claude Debussy.

(Library of Congress)

The flute in the opening evokes the panpipes, conventionally associated with Pan, the ancient Greece, ancient Greek nature god, who once pursued and tried to rape the nymph Syrinx. Her sisters saved her by transforming her into a stand of reeds beside a pond. To commemorate his desire for her, Pan cut some of the reeds and made them into a musical instrument on which he often played. Fragments of Debussy’s opening flute motif recur throughout the composition, but Debussy relies more heavily on distinctive musical timbres than on musical themes and their development. His violins suggest the rich emotional textures of the human voice and human sensibility; his harp arpeggios imply the sudden appearance and disappearance of the naiads, the water-dwelling nymphs. Skillfully harmonized, the prominent woodwinds create a lush, languorous, sensuous atmosphere. The piece’s coda recapitulates its initial theme in a simplified form.

Debussy’s piece seems to follow the poem closely at each stage. The music even has the same number of measures (110) as the poem has verses (classical twelve-syllable alexandrines). However, twentieth century composer Leonard Bernstein, arguing an opposing position with equal plausibility, claimed that Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was actually an essay on the key of E major, flirting with the breakdown of conventional tonality only in order to retreat repeatedly from the brink. By contrast, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces of 1909, by inventing and systematically applying the twelve-tone system, actually marks the origin of a new music, which then coexists with the old without ever replacing it.


Few people attended the first performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, but its impact has grown ever since. The Russian Vaslav Nijinski Nijinski, Vaslav (1890-1950), among the greatest ballet dancers of all time, created a ballet with revolutionary choreography based on Debussy’s composition. Debussy refused to adopt any familiar, consecrated musical form for the orchestra, such as the symphony or sonata. His whole-tone and chromatic motifs thoroughly undermined listeners’ sense of a dominant tonality. His series of parallel chords (a device forbidden in conventional composition theory, although found in Wagner) Wagner, Richard
[p]Wagner, Richard;and Claude Debussy[Debussy] overwhelmed habitual ideas of harmony and musical structure, as did his incomplete chord progressions, his parenthetical episodes (unrelated musical materials separating statements of the leading themes), and his contrapuntal juxtaposition and compression of two or more musical motifs at once. He developed these devices throughout his later orchestral works.

Debussy is widely Impressionism;and music[Music] known as the major “Impressionist” composer, by analogy with the Impressionist movement in painting. The title of several of Debussy’s major orchestral compositions—La Mer (the sea), Nuages (clouds), Fêtes (parties), and Jeux (games)—seem to justify the label, because in them he seems to be “painting after nature.” However, the composer himself strongly objected to being called “Impressionist,” because, like his master Mallarmé, Mallarmé, Stéphane he was seeking to suggest moods and ideas, not to depict scenes.

Compared to Schoenberg’s influence on modern music, the influence of Debussy has been the more profound and lasting. His example strongly affected Igor Stravinsky Stravinsky, Igor , Béla Bartók Bartók, Béla , George Gershwin Gershwin, George , and Pierre Boulez Boulez, Pierre , among many others. For this reason, he may be the most significant composer of the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. A definitive analysis of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by a great conductor and teacher. Strongly rebuts the conventional opinion that Debussy was a striking innovator, convincingly explaining the piece as a conservative delaying action, as was Mallarmé’s poem.
  • Brown, Matthew. “Tonality and Form in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” Music Theory Spectrum 15, no. 2 (Fall, 1993): 127-143. Agreeing with Bernstein, Brown asserts that conventional tonal analysis can effectively explain the composition of the prelude, but that Debussy innovated by eliminating conventional harmonic cadences (resolutions), inserting parenthetical thematic episodes, compressing several themes into one polyphonic statement, and favoring recognizable tonal patterns over conventional melodies.
  • Code, David J. “Hearing Debussy Reading Mallarmé: Music Après Wagner in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 54, no. 3 (2001): 493-554. Cole carefully compares Debussy’s score with Mallarmé’s text, claiming that the composer was a careful, sophisticated reader who followed the poem much more closely than is commonly believed.
  • Debussy, Claude. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun: An Authoritative Score; Mallarmé’s Poem; Backgrounds and Sources; Criticism and Analysis. Edited by William W. Austin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. Still the fundamental, essential reference text for students of music.
  • Griffiths, Paul. A Concise History of Avant-Garde Music from Debussy to Boulez. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Includes a dense, provocative discussion of Debussy’s decisive, influential innovations in musical style.
  • Lesure, François, and Roy Howat. “Debussy (Achille-) Claude.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 2001. An authoritative overview of the composer’s life and works.
  • Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind. 2 vols. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Chapter 14, “Mallarmé,” traces the poet’s influence on and friendship with the composer.
  • Parks, Richard S. The Music of Debussy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. A technical analysis of pitch, timbre, and structure in Debussy’s music.
  • Staines, Joe, ed. The Rough Guide to Classical Music. London: Penguin Books, 2001. This user-friendly, non-technical guide contains intelligent, knowledgeable comments on many major composers and compositions, and evaluates current recordings well. It lucidly contrasts Debussy with Schoenberg.
  • Wenk, Arthur. Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Explains the influences on Debussy of Javanese gamelan music, Symbolist poetry, and contemporary Russian composers. Discusses Debussy’s circular rather than linear structure and his tonal organization.

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Debussy, Claude
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