Columbus Symphony and a Faun in the Afternoon

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) sensualist divin(Photo: Wikipedia)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) sensualist divin(Photo: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I attended a rehearsal at BalletMet in preparation for this weekend’s collaborative performances with the Columbus Symphony. I watched James Kudelka rehearse the company in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. 

Don’t miss this. Bring your towels. This is going to be one hot show.

I didn’t realize the entire program this weekend is to be danced. And why not? Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole is all about hot, sensual movement and color.

Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune is a 10 minute score by Claude Debussy, inspired by a poem of the same name by Stephane Mallarme. It’s mid-career Debussy and is considered the birth of modernism in music. I’m not sure what ‘modernism’ means. To me it’s something never heard before. The first notes you hear come from a solo flute going up and going down, enveloping the whole steps of a tritone, an eerie almost hollow sound.

Debussy did not write a ballet score. He was attempting to reflect in music what Mallarme was doing in poetry as suggested by music. Got it? This sounds like a “who’s on first?’ routine.

Mallarme envied a sense of ambiguity available to music he thought unavailable to words. Thus, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun depicts light, air, nature, and above all erotic suggested by words, as the faun pursues nymphs on a hot afternoon.  Debussy was challenged by this and reconverted Mallarme to music. You hear the sweet chase of the nymphs, you feel the faun’s desire in music and the flirtatiousness of the dryads. Above all, you feel in this music the faun’s slow awakening and later his exhausted sleep after a hot afternoon of  pursuit.

Nijinsky danced the Faun in a ballet produced by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912.  Fifty years later, Jerome Robbins took up Faune for the New York City Ballet. As music, this work by Debussy invites your imagination to move and to feel. Or not. There’s no one tonal center. A delicious ambiguity.

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