“A miracle of sound transparency”: Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
How does something new originate? In music it often seems to happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Powerful psychic and physical energies are released and supposedly inflexible rules are thrown overboard, at times causing shock and alarm among listeners, at other times, euphoria. Occasionally, however, the new announces itself very discreetly – subtly and gently, like a shy caress. Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun], for example. Gustave Doret, who conducted the premiere, later recalled how “totally spellbound” the audience was on 22 December 1894 at the Salle dʼHarcourt in Paris when flutist Georges Barrère played his famous solo. Whether or not it was really the “first composition of the modern era”, as claimed in the literature, is subject to debate. The young Pierre Boulez was absolutely right, however, when he said in 1956: “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music.”
Indeed, it is the breath – an incredibly calm, relaxed breath – which establishes the inner rhythm of this Prélude; that is already perceptible in the opening phrases, again and again emerging from the silence. The play of nuances makes the music; every transition occurs gradually. One by one the flute, harp, horns, oboe and later the clarinet come forward and deliver their lines, as though enveloped in the fragrance of exotic distant places. Little by little they join forces to form a kind of chamber music ensemble.
The ethereal floating of the final bars reflects the literary source: “Sweet pair, farewell. I shall see the shades you become,” is the closing line of Stéphane Mallarmé’s eclogue, published in 1876, about the faun who, when he awakens from his afternoon nap, no longer knows what really happened between him and the two nymphs in the morning. Debussy later stressed that his composition was a very free illustration of the poem and by no means a synthesis of it. Mallarmé was particularly pleased about that; in a letter to the composer he wrote that the finesse and richness of the music went much further than his own poem in expressing nostalgia and light.
Preferably heard “without clothes”: Edgard Varèse’s Arcana
One of Debussy’s greatest admirers was his countryman Edgard Varèse, 20 years younger, who lived mainly in the US from 1916 onwards. “With almost mathematical equilibrium” Debussy balanced “timbres against rhythms and textures – like a fantastic chemist”, Varèse declared in 1965. The two masters shared the conviction that artists could only develop their individuality through confidence in their own voices and that every composition must find its form anew. Varèse often quoted Debussy’s maxim that “works of art make rules, but rules do not make works of art”. Varèse compared his own compositional approach with that of the scientist and inventor; he also described himself as a “worker in frequencies and intensities.” The titles of his works frequently allude to scientific concepts, although they have more associative than actual structural significance. That is also true of Arcana: Varèse’s interest in science directed his attention towards such thinkers as Paracelsus, the early 16th-century physician, alchemist and mystic. He drew inspiration for Arcana from Paracelsus’s writings, which refer to six stars. According to Paracelsus, the highest of these is the apocalyptic star. “Besides these [six] there is still another star, imagination, which begets a new star and a new heaven.” In Paracelsus’s teachings, the arcana are wonder drugs and universal remedies which are able to transform and restore human beings.
When 120 musicians – including no less than six percussionists, who must play a huge arsenal of noise instruments – take over the concert stage for the orchestral work Arcana,before the first note is heard one can already anticipate how radically Varèse’s intentions differ from everything that was standard practice in Europe during the 1920s. With its shrill, aggressive orchestral timbres and angular, extremely volatile character, Varèse’s urban soundscape surprisingly seems to want to combine the Futurists’ optimistic belief in progress with the anarchic brutality of neoprimitivism. Varèse’s “liberation of sound” exerted an enormous influence on later generations of musicians; Frank Zappa, for example, would have been inconceivable without the example of the great maverick. The composer Dieter Schnebel, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about the physicality of Varèse’s sound, which can be experienced almost “physically” as “vibrating air”. He suggests that one “should actually hear such music without clothes in order to absorb the sound from all sides if possible; to immerse oneself completely in the sonority, not just the ears.”
Unknown territory on nearly every level: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique
Hector Berlioz was barely 27 years old and had not yet made his appearance with a work of major importance when he scored a brilliant success with the Symphonie fantastique, which he composed within a few months in 1830. The musician had seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson for the first time as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet a few years earlier. The overwhelming impression the work made on him was immediately connected with his admiration for the artistry of the actress. “I had spent several months in a kind of dull despair ... dreaming ceaselessly of Shakespeare and of the actress of genius, the ‘fair Ophelia’ who had become the rage of Paris,” the composer later recounted in his memoirs. Berlioz formulated a plan to impress the actress, whom he had not yet met, with a success of his own and thus win her over. “An immense instrumental composition” was to produce the decisive effect.
The idea of making himself and his desperate passion the theme solved several problems at once: Berlioz found an outlet for his excessive, increasingly aggressive emotions. The plot of the “instrumental drama”, which justified the sequence of five very different characteristic pieces, now fell into place almost by itself. Madly in love, the sensitive young composer takes a large dose of opium and falls into a deep sleep, during which he is haunted by strange visions and horrible nightmares. The first movement (Daydreams – Passions), in freely structured sonata form with a slow introduction, is completely dominated by the main theme representing the artist’s beloved, an idée fixe which recurs frequently in different guises. His beloved appears briefly during the tumultuous waltz of the ball scene, and in the peaceful pastoral scene of the third movement she and her theme provide a sudden burst of excitement.
The solitary English horn melody in the third movement is an immediate predecessor of the unaccompanied flute melody in Debussy’s Faun, and the amorphous, rumbling thunder of the four timpani in the distance anticipates Varèse’s thunderstorm of percussion. In his delirium the hero believes he has murdered his beloved. A rousing march, which Berlioz drew from his unfinished opera Les Francs-juges [The Judges of the Secret Court], accompanies the condemned man to the scaffold, but just before the guillotine blade falls he again remembers the unattainable beauty. Finally, in the tumult of the witches’ sabbath, she joins the dancers, making vulgar faces to the sound of pealing bells, blasphemous intonations of the Dies Irae and a diabolical fugue. Berlioz pulled out all the stops of dark Romanticism here. His strategy succeeded: the clearly autobiographical character of the Épisode de la vie d’un artiste [Episode in the Life of an Artist] – the subtitle of the Symphonie fantastique – immediately stimulated the Parisian public’s craving for sensation.