By Adam Kuenzel
Ask Minnesota Orchestra Principal Flute Chair Adam Kuenzel to list some of his preferred classical pieces and he will surely include composer Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Considered one of Debussy’s most famous works, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun features a score for the entire orchestra and lasts roughly 10 minutes.
Many consider the Prelude as heralding in a new period of modernist music marked by smaller ensembles, as compared to the large orchestras of the late-romanticism era. Considered controversial at the time of its premiere, the symphonic poem debuted in Paris in 1984 and subsequently garnered Debussy international attention. In writing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy drew inspiration from French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune.
Debussy wrote that in no way does Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun try to build upon Mallarmé’s creation, but rather develops a parallel storyline describing the dreams and intentions of the main character of both works through a series of scenes. Mallarmé at first expressed displeasure over Debussy juxtaposing the poem and the orchestral composition but later changed his mind after seeing a performance of the work. Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun also inspired the creation of three subsequent ballets.
Intending to write the piece as the first of a suite of three movements, Debussy never finished the other two portions. To the untrained ear, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun sounds almost improvised and freeform; however, the piece actually contains complexity of motifs played at intervals by different members of the orchestra.