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Afternoon of a Faun

Similarities in Approach to Poetry and Orchestral Music by Kelariz Keshavarz


The French poet Stephane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) shared creative approaches in their conceptions of the acclaimed eclogue, L'après-midi d'un faune (1876), and the iconic orchestral prelude (1894) invoking the same poem.  Although of different generations, the two men were prominent in Parisian artistic circles at the same time and knew each other and each other’s work.  Mallarmé is now understood as a major French symbolist poet, whose work anticipated and inspired several revolutionary artistic schools of the early twentieth century.  Debussy, considered the central figure in turn-of-the-century French music, was deeply inspired by the innovations of contemporaneous poets and painters, notably Mallarmé.  For over a century musicians and scholars have revered the Debussy’s Prélude as a landmark composition.  Pierre Boulez, the banner carrier of French music at the end of the twentieth century, has identified it as the beginning of modern music with his observation that "The flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”  My investigation into the influence of the nature of the poem on the composer’s treatment will concentrate on two aspects: ambiguity of form, the sensual approach of word choice and the correlative selection of chords.

Symbolism, Mallarmé, Debussy

The word “symbolism” represents an extremely wide meaning.  It can be defined as the art of expressing ideas and emotions by describing them indirectly, without overt comparison with concrete images.  According to Chadwick in the book Symbolism, symbolism should be defined by suggesting what these ideas, emotions are, and by re-creating them in the mind of the reader, using explained symbols.  In 1890s, Mallarmé expanded the meaning of symbol through his poetry to embrace specified aspects of myth.  The symbolism of Mallarmé’s art is capable of awakening or indicating things without specifically naming or defining them and suggesting rather than dogmatically imposing. 

Wallace Fowlie known for his translations of the poet Arthur Rimbaud and his critical studies of French poetry, identified Mallarmé’s works as a pivotal moment and a point of achievement in history of French literature.  In the book Poem and Symbol, Fowlie described the nature of the poet’s word in the following manner:

Mallarmé created an art form that is antioratorical and antisocial.  By writing a poetry in which the concrete is always vanishing, he created a countercreation. The flower he holds up in his verse is not a flower–it is the one absent from all bouquets, l’absente de tous bouquets.

Purification of language, the timelessness of words, and ambiguity are the facets he drew attention to in order to evaluate characteristics of Mallarmé’s poetry.  These aspects will be discussed in the last part of my paper on Debussy’s Prélude to approach the similarity in the works of the both Mallarmé and Debussy.

Debussy and Mallarmé

In 1862, when Debussy was born, Stéphane Mallarmé was composing the first of his poems and also the essay on L’Art pour tous, in which he begrudged music because of the protective mystery of its notation, which he perceived as contrary to the sensitivity of literature in the coming age of communal literacy.

Focusing on the connection of the two artists, musicologist Henry Philips wrote in the article “The Symbolism and Debussy”:

The poets stove to make their verse into music, while Debussy sought to ‘literate’ his work. The verse of Verlaine and Mallarmé is always sheer beautiful sound; and it could be thus better express

the vagueness, from an intellectual point of view, which had been the charm of music alone. Debussy gives suggestive titles, always refined in expression–they are frequently a line from a contemporary poet– and always apt. Verlaine can be appreciated only by one who has loved music: Debussy yields his finest joys to those who know the literary aspirations of his age.

Although there is enough evidence indicating the connection of the two artists’ approach in creating their form of art and their mutually influential works, it is not clear how close their friendship was because of the twenty-year age difference. Through the correspondences between the artists and their contemporaries, however it is known that Debussy occasionally attended the salon Mallarmé held each Tuesday in his house. 

L’après-midi d’un faune

L’après-midi d’un faune is seen as one of the most famous poems among Mallarmé’s works and has claimed the interest of many composers and music admirers due to Debussy’s Prélude inspired by it.  In the introduction of the book Collected Poems and Other Verse, Elizabeth McCombie describes the work as:

…remarkable for its sheer variety and degree of experimentation.  “A Faun in the Afternoon” is an early and radical example.  An extraordinary hymn to the undefinable, unlocatable moment of intense eroticism, it lingers and hovers on the edge of illusion.  We cannot be sure whether or not the scene takes place: the faun muses, “Did I have a dream?”  Syntactic patterns are left incomplete (“Let me reflect…”), creating sudden breaks in sense that dramatize the ebb and flow of doubt and certainty, of the struggle to rekindle memories of intoxicating desire.

McCombie also noted that Mallarmé “lived at a time of heightened mutual awareness between music and literature, and his work represents a particularly fertile moment” when music and literature as two individual media communicated the same idea.  The writer believed that there is a rich area of aesthetic and structural overlap between Debussy’s Prélude to The Afternoon of a Faun and Mallarmé’s poem, which goes beyond the coincidence of their sharing a period style.  Mallarmé in his seminal lecture “Music and Letters,” given in Oxford and Cambridge in 1894, claimed that music and literature are two sides of the same coin.

The presence of the date 1892 on Debussy’s manuscript is evidence that he began the Faun in that year although he finished it in 1894.  The initial idea of the piece may still have been pretty vague in 1892.  According to two public announcements in 1893 and 1894, it is known that the Prélude was only part of the original conception.  The title Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’Après-midi d’un faune is printed in a list of forthcoming works of Debussy published on the cover of La Damoiselle élue in April 1893.  Therefore, it could be conceived that Debussy pondered the work a long time, creating a lot more than he used finally.

In chapter seven of the book Claude Debussy and the Poets, Arthure Wenk incorporates correspondence of Mallarmé and Debussy to one another.  The contents of the letters are mainly about inspirations and influence of the Prélude on the artists’ contemporaries.  He reflects on how both works passed several metamorphoses before achieving the final forms.  In addition, some letters from the artists to their contemporary companions are brought into consideration, mainly about the general impression of the poem.  To bring an example one could refer to a letter from Mallarmé to Debussy about the poet’s reaction to the first performance of the piece in 1894 Mallarmé writes “… 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.”  In the book Musical Ekphrasis, Siglind Bruhn writes about various ways in which one art form can fruitfully relate to another.  She believes this is a transformation of a message—in content and form, imagery and suggested symbolic signification—from one medium into another and calls it “musical ekphrasis”.  Having written that, Bruhn considers Debussy and Mallarmé, and the creation of the Prélude and poses the question: how does Debussy’s composition transpose Mallarmé’s poem into music?  She approaches this question from several angles, notably aspects of structure and texture, tonal design, and motovic presence.  In the next volume, I will address the three dominant features of the works individually as mentioned in the introduction to recognize the similarities in approach by the two artists.

Part 2

In the previous volume, Mallarmé and Debussy, and the creation of L'après-midi d'un faune was discussed.  In this volume I would like to focus on the three dominant features of the works individually as mentioned in the introduction to recognize the similarities in approach by the two artists.


Mallarmé has subtitled the poem with the word “Eclogue.”  According to Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, eclogue is defined as “a short pastoral poem, without appreciable characterization or action.”  This poem consists of 110 verses, grouped unevenly.  The shortest is less than a line and the longest thirty-one lines.  According to the distinguished critic Charles Mauron, Debussy followed the poem verse by verse in composing his music.  The number of lines of the poem is identical to the number of measures of music.  The structure of both works is also identical to a noticeable extent:

Example 1: Wenk’s Analysis of the Poem and the Prélude:

Introduction: Lines 1-3, First Section: Lines 4-14, Middle Section: Lines: 14-61, Final Section: Lines 62-109, Conclusion: Line 110.

Introduction (Theme): Mm. 1-10, A: Mm. 11-36, B: Mm. 37-78, A: Mm. 79-100, Coda: Mm. 101-110

Bruhn however perceives the poem as laid out in two almost equal halves followed by what in music would be called a Coda,

Example 2: Bruhn’s Analysis of the Eclogue:

Section I: Lines 1-51, Section II: Lines 52-93, Epilogue: Lines 94-110

The rationale for this analysis is the fact that all the expressions referring to the faun’s music making appear in the first section through various artistic choice of words and images.  The second section, by contrast, is free of any word alluding to music but employs words with a specific sound quality; the last part of the poem allows both the music and poem to fall silent.  Debussy’s Prélude in Bruhn’s perspective follows Mallarmé’s design very closely,

Example 3: Bruhn’s analysis of the Prélude:

Section I: Mm. 1-54, Section II: Mm. 55-93, Coda: mm. 94-110

The characteristic shared by two masterpieces is that neither Mallarmé’s eclogue nor Debussy’s Prélude breaks apart into discrete sections.  Both artists minimize the internal sections of their works, consequently one idea flows into the next.  As a result, when the poem is read or the music is performed, an overall continuity and coherence is felt that obscures the underlying organization. 

David J. Code on the other hand claims that all previous writers have contributed nothing to the interpretation of the piece and have only focused on the similarities of the artists’ approach.  He believes the actual sophistication of Debussy’s reading of Mallarmé becomes apparent through a newly precise formal analysis he executes in a paper by him published in 2001 in Journal of the American Musicological Society LIV/3.  To prove this claim, he refers to William Austin’s analysis of the poem and the piece, that he analyzes the poem and the Prélude individually and comments on their possible relationship only in the last paragraph.  He also discusses Arthur Wenk’s perspective (See example 1), and also Lauren Berman who believes that Debussy’s compositional style in the Prélude falls short of the Mallarméan complexity.

Ambiguity in the poem and music

Ambiguity as a characteristic shared by both men is one of the most dominant factors to draw attention to as Fowlie states:

Symbolism and impressionism both were reactions to the data, the given subject material, the rigor in order and composition of an Ingres or a Laconte de Liste.  The so-called cult of obscurity, as opposed to an oratorical or expository art, is certainly to some degree the art of doubt and nuances, an art based on prediction for ellipsis.

One need only examine even the beginning of both of the works to notice obscurity created in each by word choice in the poem and the correlative selection of chords and tonality in the music:

Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.

Si clair,

Leur incarnate léger, qu’il voltage dans l’air

Assoupi de sommeils touffus

Aimai-je un rêve?

“I’d love to make them linger on, those nymphs.

So fair,

Their frail incarnate, that it flutters in the air

Drowsy with tousled slumbers.

Did I have a dream?”

The opening line which declares the theme of the poem and seems to drop the reader in the middle of something, because it is not indicated which nymphs are being addressed.  It is only clarified by reading the next lines.  The word choice also creates vagueness, for instance the word “perpétuer” (perpetuate) as Wenk discusses:

If the nymphs are real, then it suggests prolonging their existence in some fashion; if they are not, it implies giving them an existence which they do not really have. In either case, the word veux [want] tells us that an act of will is required. Just how the faun will go about “perpetuating” the nymphs will become more apparent later on in the poem.

Mallarmé disturbs the classical word order or the normal meaning of words, by employing metaphorical senses, so that a single word has several references simultaneously.   

Focusing on the beginning of the poem, ambiguity could also be noticed in the beginning of the music.  The opening flute theme, like the first line of the poem, seems to not have a definite beginning, but is simply there.  It initiates in skeletal form and spans a triton from C# to G then back to C#.  Due to being tonally ambiguous, the key of the piece remains undefined.

Example 4: Tritone

The continuation of the theme later outlines an E major triad before ending on A#.  The latter’s relationship grounds another tritone a minor third above the first, combines with it and constructs a diminished seventh chord which subsists at the foundation of the entire piece.  Debussy obscures the boundaries between tonalities by weakening the tonic-dominant relationship, using unresolved dominant seventh chords, extending the diatonic cycle to place additional functions. 


Art is the reflection of human beings’ inner desire and philosophy.  According to this rational artists are the gods who have the privilege of discovering those concepts, processing them through themselves, and distributing them in various forms; literature, visual arts, music.  Humanity’s desire and passion are dependent on the atmosphere and surrounding circumstances.  This could be the reason why artists of the same period and location often share many similarities in their works.  Although different in style, one could recognize one artist from another based on aesthetics. 

Mallarmé and Debussy, both living in Paris in the span of the 1890s to the 1920s, are examples of this idea.  Music lovers still argue over the degree to which Debussy's music is Impressionist, symbolist, or even French.  Interpretations in different art forms of Afternoon of a Faun give the measure of what is at stake between them, when each lends to another what it owns itself only by default, or by excess, and when the arts interrelate to the point that all of them are to each other without common measure.  According to the arch-modernist Pierre Boulez, Prélude á l’aprés-midi d’un faune, often referred to as the first composition of the “modern” era, awakened modern music. 

Both artists share similarities in their approach to the creation of their art on the path to freeing themselves from traditions and towards innovations.   Ambiguity as a characteristic shared by both men is one of the most conquering factors in their artistry.  Neither Mallarmé’s eclogue nor Debussy’s Prélude is separable into discrete sections, as ideas flow into each other and an overall continuity and coherence is felt that obscures the underlying organization.  Word choice in the poem and the correlative selection of chords and tonality in the music also form ambiguity in the works.  The perspective in this paper could be continued by considering Nijinsky’s ballet of L’après-midi d’un faune, and traced back to Greek mythology to witness the inspirational myth on which the art is founded.

Flutist Kelariz Keshavarz is an international award-winning musician in classical and contemporary flute playing, performing solo, chamber, and orchestral works.

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