27. Prelude To The Afternoon In A Summer Garden


In my two previous posts we listened to portions of Claude Debussy’s triptych entitled Ibéria from 1907, examining some noteworthy orchestration techniques. It is Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, one of his most famous works, that we are going to hear in this post. And the examination is going to focus on a relatively short passage, but one rich with novel orchestration textures and techniques. We will also begin to study some of the techniques used by a contemporary of Debussy, Frederick Delius, and his composition for orchestra entitled In A Summer Garden, coincidentally from the same period as Debussy’s Ibéria.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Debussy composed this work when he was in his early 30s and it had its premiere in 1894. Most who’ve heard the work know the opening solo flute part. Debussy takes much of the initial material and extracts small pieces of it for use later in the work.

The roughly nine-minute long Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun is loosely in A-B-A form. The chromatic theme introduced by the flute at the opening is used as the basis for pieces of material developed through the A section. In the second or B section the composer introduces a longer melody line, at least for the first four measures. Debussy first introduces this second melody about ten measures before Example 27.1 begins. In that first presentation of the B melody, it is played in two octaves by flute, oboe, English horn, and two clarinets. The upper strings have the syncopated pattern seen in measure 61 with horns and lower strings providing sustained tones. However, the syncopation is more of a gesture to movement than a clearly heard rhythmic pattern in itself. The gesture of the rhythm is a subtle, but useful one. As the listener is subconsciously searching for clear rhythmic points, it becomes obvious that these strings are probably not going to help. This struggle in fact builds the excitement during that first introduction of the melody.

It is on the repeat of this second theme that the composer produces many intriguing orchestration ideas. For the first two bars of Example 27.1 Debussy includes a bassoon and a horn to the melody, staying with two octaves (mostly one-line and two-line ranges). These doubled lines are in comfortable ranges for the players. Notice how putting the sustained harmony in the same octaves (but played by the strings) for these measures gives the passage a strong harmonic center.

Another element enhances these measures: the two horns playing and sustaining the minor third A–C throughout most of the two measures. To assist, the lower strings have the open fifth A–E moving down a fifth to D–A in the second measure.

Example 27.1. Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Measures 61-78)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Once I tried to analyze some Debussy work with a traditional view of harmony, the view one might use when analyzing a work by Beethoven, for example. Because of that unsuccessful examination, I learned a lesson: I would not presume that such an analysis of the harmonies used by Debussy would be useful. Others may try and fare better than I, but in my opinion it’s a stretch. Regardless, the harmonies are not always separate from the orchestration.

In measure 62, the composer chooses to support the harmonies with what could be perceived as a sustained A minor chord in the horn and strings with the bass moving from an A to a D. But it could also be interpreted as an F-sharp dominant sixth chord… (Sorry, I said I was not going to do that. It’s a little bit of a humbling experience.)

Debussy’s use of whole tone scales/chords forces the ear hear the whole tones from the E to the F-sharp to the A-flat (beginning the melody in measure 63) as one continuous line, especially when all the winds are moving from a C to the same pitch at the start (C–D–E–F-sharp–G-sharp). It’s a cunning bit of writing that works well and sounds appropriate in this harmonic environment.

At the end of these two bars all the strings except the basses enter as this second main theme is repeated, also in the same two octaves that the winds had previously. Note that with the reintroduction of this sustained long melody line, Debussy chooses to provide rather intense movement. What better way than to have the winds play chords in the syncopated rhythm provided by alternating notes of triplets. But he doesn’t think simply playing the chords is enough for the tune’s canvas. He gives the top of these chords to a melody hidden in this harmonic effect itself. This can be heard in the flute and doubled by first the clarinets, then the oboes, back to the clarinets until the flutes move up to the next octave in measure 67.

Once he’s had the first half of the melody played by the strings for four measures (63-66), they move to the second portion of the tune as the flutes, oboes and English horn open up this background (hidden or subtle) melody to three octaves. The sustained harmonies are similarly opened up in octaves played by the flutes, clarinets and horns. The way the composer moves the triplets and the syncopated chords around in the winds is brilliant and contributes to the impression of a gentle, languid day in the bucolic setting.

Notice how the two harps, after the first sustained part of the melody, change their style so dramatically from the arpeggios of the first four measures. In this second section of the melody, the second harp is duplicating the flute and horn melody line while the first harp looks like it is simply playing the harmonies. Upon closer inspection, however, we can see that its notes come very close to the melody in the flutes. Again, Debussy gives us a variety of parts that work as a cohesive and synergistic whole.

One of the master effects the composer pulls off is to have the downbeats seemingly less important than rhythms of the melodies themselves. Consider that the syncopated triplets in the winds have a downbeat on the first beat of the measure only in measures 63, 65, 67 and 69. Fortunately for those struggling to tap their feet to the beat, the harps for the first four measures provide some assistance.

In a similar manner to what we listened to in 26.1 Ibéria – Les parfums de la nuit Debussy shifts style and mood quite rapidly. As mentioned in that previous post, this is not atypical for the school of French Impressionism. It’s what we observe at a glance. And Debussy provides the second part of the tune for us to hear by the violins back in measure 40. The harmonies also become a bit more (pardon the word) tonal, moving back and forth from G-flat major to E-flat minor.

And by the time the winds reach higher up with their brief countermelodic scalar runs in measure 67 and again in measure 69, the composer has provided a good amount for the audience to follow. The faun’s forest appears to be packed with a lot of activity.

Hence, in measure 71 the dramatic and cross-functional business of duple and triple rhythms as well as the now comfortable mix of whole tone and traditional harmonies are again tossed out. On the downbeat we have the bassoons and basses playing E-flat. The harmony is basically an E-flat minor seventh chord, even with the all the activity and figures in the measures.

Debussy, of course, is not one to rest on his harmonic laurels. So beginning in measure 71 he brings in parts of the triplet details like the clarinets, flutes, horns and harp. These elements though are mostly part of the transition from the intensity of the previous measures to the peacefulness and lightness of what is to follow. In fact, by the time we have the one measure of the melody repeated the third time in measure 73, it’s just in the first violins and cellos. And it is no surprise that we hear a few fifth progressions (E-flat to A-flat to D-flat), ending with the sustained contrabasses on the D-flat in measure 74.

Now that the intensity has abated we have a few solo wind parts, first in the horn, then to the clarinet and finally to the oboe. There are a few features that give this passage some “glue” to assure that its disparate parts sonically gel. The first is the sustained D-flat in the basses for the entire passage. Another is that we hear the harmony parts played by the horns (including the third horn playing a major third up from the D-flat of the basses helping to make the sound very close to one of D-flat major).

Perhaps the addition of the solo violin playing the main theme again is the element that tops the cake here as the other instruments also play snippets of previous lines. The passage provides both a recap of its earlier and much more robust incarnation and a transition to the next and final portion of the piece. Note too that the notated dynamics of these small solo parts make it clear that for measures 76, 77 and 78 we are returning to the soft stillness of the faun’s late afternoon. The composer also uses the technique that we’ve all heard before of removing instruments to reduce the sound, but also to provide small bits of familiar themes.

In A Summer Garden

And while we’re on the topic of small bits of themes, I’d like to present Frederick Delius’s In A Summer Garden. Delius, born in the same year as Debussy, in addition to the ideas of Wagner, Brahms and the Impressionists, was also influenced by the British school’s sound that also touched Holst, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Grainger among others.

Example 27.2. Fredrick Delius: In A Summer Garden (Measures 1-19)
Charles Mackerras, Welsh National Opera Orchestra, EMI

It would do both composers a disservice to compare their work. Nevertheless, it is obvious that this piece embraces the idea of presenting snippets of its ideas, in this example they are little lines that provide a sense of sitting quietly in a summer garden.

Of interest is the opening of just flute, clarinet and three bassoons, producing a woody sound. This is highlighted by the flute in its lowest register and the clarinet in its rich chalumeau register. When this passage is repeated in the strings, the oboe enters with a new element, possibly imitating a bird call. This sixteenth note pattern is repeated frequently in the work.

After a little bit of another tune is introduced by the flute, the sixteenth note pattern is tossed around the woodwinds in the orchestra. Although the idea is not new, the composer does change things up a bit, sometimes providing a note on the ensuing downbeat and other time not doing so.

He also introduces a new element that will return later in the work, although not in the exact same manner. This is the flute passage in measure 17. Whereas all but one of the other sixteenth note snippets have been marked staccato and move by seconds or thirds, this new pattern leaps up and down only to return to the note on which it began. In addition it’s marked with a slur.

This entire opening is presented to show how a simple and seemingly straightforward amount of writing can provide the clay on which to form more substantial material. And don’t let the simplicity of this opening fool you, the harmonies begin quite smoothly in a modal fashion, but by the time we’ve come to the end of the example the harmonies are anything but simple triads.

Delius takes advantage of the ability for the strings to double stop, adding them to all parts on the downbeat of measure eighteen and not coincidentally the first appearance of the harp. This suddenly quite rich and resonant string sound has become something much different from their introduction just a few seconds before.

In the next post we’ll review more of this well known Delius work and look at one more example of Debussy in another of his famous works for orchestra too.

Please let me know if you have questions.

Matthew Yasner


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