Nine minutes that changed the world

In 1876, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé published a poem entitled "The Afternoon of a Faun." He doubted anyone could set it to music successfully. But composer Claude Debussy did exactly that. The music runs only about nine minutes long, but it helped give birth to the modern era as we know it.

How Claude Debussy's ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ ushered in the modern era

French composer Claude Achille Debussy with dark hair and a goatee is wearing a suit and is looking into the camera with his arms folded and his hand up near his chin. This image is in Black and White.
Composer Claude Debussy is most known for his ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune,’ based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy’s work premiered at a concert of the Société Nationale in December 1894. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*This episode originally aired May 30, 2017. It features longtime CBC Radio contributor Robert Harris in conversation with Ivars Taurins, founding director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.

In 1876, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé published a poem entitled The Afternoon of a Faun. He doubted anyone could set it to music successfully. But composer Claude Debussy did exactly that. The resulting work — Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun — runs only about nine minutes long, but it helped give birth to the modern era as we know it.

It's more than just a famous piece of music. It stands at  the beginning of the world we still live in. It's a guide, in sound, to the political, social, moral and geopolitical changes that ended the 19th century and created the 20th century. And it remains an existential and culturally shape-shifting work of art that offers us clues into who we are today.   

In May of 1889, the Universal Exposition opened in Paris. It was a celebration of everything modern, industrial, progressive. And it was symbolized by the structure built for the Exhibition, a steel tower built for the Exhibition's entrance, designed by Gustave Eiffel. 

To commemorate the exhibition's opening, French composer Jules Massenet was commissioned to write a four-act opera, Esclarmonde, to demonstrate the glory of French music. It was orderly, traditional, rational. But even as people all over the world marvelled at the Eiffel Tower, and Edison's first phonographs, and the cascade of technological inventions of the late 19th century, another sound was being created in French music, another spirit, the harbinger of a completely new era. 

Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun embodied a revolutionary sound, and an entirely new sensibility in Western art and Western culture. Order was displaced by ambiguity. Discipline and the rational by languor and the sensual. And it was at the Exposition that the seeds for Debussy's groundbreaking work were planted — by Javanese gamelan music, which Debussy heard there, and was transfixed by its rhythms and melodic structure which pointed towards the timeless and the eternal. 

Detail from the programme illustration by Léon Bakst for the ballet L'Après-midi d'un faune by Vaslav Nijinsky, music by Claude Debussy which premiered on May 29, 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. (Léon Bakst/Wikipedia)

Written in 1894, the Prelude ties into so many other modern trends alive in the Paris of the late nineteenth century. It was based on a poem that was the height of the literary avant-garde. It swam in the same waters as avant-garde practitioners of visual art, Impressionist and Symbolist painters, figures like Monet and Whistler and Henri Rousseau, and of course Asian gamelan music.

The Prelude wrapped all of these traditions together, and added the things that only music can express — longing, spacious beauty and the hint of worlds just beyond conscious reach. 

Claude Debussy was doing in music what painters were doing on canvas: breaking received notions about composition and order to create a new sensibility. Conductor Ivars Taurins and contributor Robert Harris are convinced that Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is the piece of music that influenced the modern world. They've associated it with literature and painting.

Here are a few examples:

William-Adolphe Bougereau ‘Nymphs and Satyr’ (1873) | An example of the ‘Academic’ School: rational, conservative realism focusing on classical subjects and techniques. By the end of the 19th century, it was increasingly ignored and sidelined. (Wikipedia)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold - The Falling Rocket’ (1874) | Whistler’s ‘impression’ of a fireworks display so affronted art critic John Ruskin that he accused Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.’ (Wikipedia)
Claude Monet ‘Impression, sunrise’ (1872) | Monet's iconic painting was harshly criticized after its first viewing as being unfinished and crude in style — a criticism that led to the labelling of Monet and his colleagues as ‘Impressionists.’ (Wikipedia)
Claude Monet ‘Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Sunset)’ harmonie in gold and blue (1894) | Part of a series of 30 paintings capturing the play of light and colour on the cathedral at different times of day. (Wikipedia)
Paul Gauguin ‘The Midday Nap’ (1894) | Post-Impressionist Gauguin’s bold use of vibrant colours contrast with Monet’s hazy impressions. An art critic labelled him and other artists experimenting with strident colours, and exotic subjects as ‘les fauves,’ or wild beasts, thus giving the movement its name — Fauvism. (Wikipedia)
Paul Gauguin ‘Manao tupapau - Spirit of the Dead Watching’ (1892) | An early example of Symbolism: strange apparitions and ambiguity, creating a sense of unease, and something more than just the visible.
Henri Rousseau ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm, or Surpris!’ (1891) | Most critics mocked Rousseau’s ‘fauvist’ work as childish, but one critic said that the painting's apparent naïveté questions our ‘most deeply rooted convictions.’ (Wikipedia)
Henri Rousseau ‘The Snake Charmer’ (1907) | The painting combines unsettling Symbolism with folk-art innocence. A work filled with evocative, exotic suggestion — and ambiguity. (Wikipedia)

**This episode was produced by Robert Harris and Ivars Taurins, with help from Greg Kelly.

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