Debussy's Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune
This post of Mark’s is now buried deep in another thread so I have taken the liberty of restarting it in a new thread and quote it here in full:
If we take as an example a well-known piece - Debussy's Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune, there are various talking points: I am taking these quotations below from our good friend Wiki-Accurate.
About his composition Debussy said ...'a succession of scenes through which pass the the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon...' He tires of pursuing nymphs and naiads (he should be so lucky) he falls into a deep sleep where he can be 'at one with nature', or as the composer more eloquently put it, 'realize his dreams of possession in universal nature'.
Allegedly the poet Mallarme wrote to Debussy: 'Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness'.
Yet there seems to be a possible conflict with another citation telling us that Mallarme was unhappy with the musical depiction.
The article goes on to tell us that the piece is not a literal musical representation. It also informs us of the oft-heard view that what appears to be a free-flowing improvisatory piece actually, when analyzed, reveals much more design and lots of connections here and there. Boulez allegedly said that modern music really begins with this piece.
There are various talking points: If the piece is a literal representation or not (I can't see how it isn't in some ways literal if it's a musical rendering of a poem and if it depicts the original poem). I don't know the original poem. Do I need to know it? Can I get the composer's vision without it? (I would say yes, subjectively speaking). Did the poet like the work then or not? How much design and symmetry is in the score? Would everyone agree with Boulez's view? Nothing is certain...
That there is a powerful vision of something in this piece is evident, but what do you hear? Do you hear eroticism? I hear something sensuous alright, but I also hear some sadness in the piece - the nostalgia referred to by the poet himself allegedly.
I'm not sure that we can say with objective certainty what moods etc...the piece evokes, only subjectively, and as I say, I've chosen this piece because it has a strong vision. A strong visual sense too.
PS A phrase which leaps out at me is the poet allegedly saying the music created a 'dissonance' with his text. Hmm...interesting!
This post set me listening not only to Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune, but other evocative works of Debussy, especially La Mer and Nocturnes, as well as some of the Preludes.
First to Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune. I have known and loved this work for many years but, like you Mark, I had never read the poem. Prompted by your post I read it in French (with difficulty) and in English translation (see below for links). I can’t say it added anything to my appreciation of the music, but perhaps the sound of the poetry spoken in an exquisite style by a native French speaker would have been different. Maybe the ‘sound’ of the words is as important as their meaning. For myself though, I am, like you, doubtful. Having carefully read the poem, I didn’t hear anything in the music that I had not noticed before.
Next I listened to several recordings of La Mer. No poem here, but the title is clear, as are the titles of the individual movements. Of the many people who know this work there can be few who are not familiar with the titles. So it is difficult to ask whether without them we would have any ‘feel’ of the sea. My feeling is that perhaps we would not, but then, is our appreciation of the music is enhanced by knowledge of the titles? In this case I think I might answer - yes. [Of course it’s impossible now for me to un-know the titles and imagine the music without them]. Turning to the Preludes, it is much the same story, perhaps one does hear the music differently for knowing the titles, but how much, I’m not sure. And ‘differently’ is not the same as ‘better’.
Should the conductor/pianist be looking for relevance to the titles (or to the poem) in his interpretation of the music? Being neither, I can’t answer, but as a listener I can ask, do some performances seem more ‘vision’ or ‘title’ oriented than others?
Prompted by your Boulez quotation (though I didn’t need much prompting), I listened to recordings by Boulez and also by Charles Munch. Boulez confirms his theory with his conducting. Full of sharply etched detail, like looking close up at an impressionist painting, he concentrates on the structure of the work. Munch has the broad sweep (of the sea in La Mer) very much in mind, but much less detail. This works less well in Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune, where Boulez’ s attention to every accent of the music really confirms his argument: it really sounds a much more modern piece (as indeed does La Mer).
There we are, just a few thoughts in response to your mind-stretching post. As you can see though, I’ve enjoyed a lot of Debussy as a result.
Thanks, and all the best,
Poem in French: http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/L%27Apr%C3%A8s-midi_d%27un_faune