Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World

Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World
By Harvey Lee Snyder
Amadeus Press; 322 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

Music historians point to certain events which they claim ended one musical era and began the next. For example, it is said that the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 ended the Baroque period. As for the end of the Romantic period approximately 150 years later, it is not anyone’s death that triggered it but the life of French composer Claude Debussy.

This is one of the central themes of Afternoon of a Faun, Harvey Lee Snyder’s marvelous biography of Debussy. After Debussy, according to Snyder and many others, nothing was ever the same.

In the late 19th century, the French didn’t have many reasons to be proud of their music. Chopin and Berlioz were long dead, and the leading lights of Gallic composition, Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré, were being increasingly seen as stodgy and out-of-touch, especially when compared to the incredible productions Richard Wagner was staging on the other side of the Rhine.

Born to a poor, obscure family, young Claude showed little promise at first. When his talent did emerge, he was an indifferent student who disdained the formulaic, classical-style education he was getting at conservatory. He played bizarrely even then. Further, he drew his strongest inspiration from non-traditional sources, such a poetry (especially that of Paul Verlaine and Edgar Allan Poe), impressionist painting, and non-western music such as Indonesian gamelan ensembles.

From this came groundbreaking music with revolutionary tonal systems, unconventional harmonic changes, exotic scales, and orchestral innovations. Snyder opens with the famous debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in 1894 and discusses his Nocturnes, Preludes, and other works in great, evocative detail. He dedicates two chapters on the production of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which turned the French musical establishment on its head and made the composer a star. It likewise made an enemy of Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of the play on which the opera was based.

Also included is the story of Debussy the man. Shy and often clumsy in his relationships, Debussy drew a near schoolboy’s inspiration from whichever woman he was in love with at any given time, regardless if she was his wife. He was constantly in debt and struggling to survive, even when an international celebrity. In his later years, while he was suffering from the disease which would eventually kill him, he took on a grueling touring schedule across Europe just to make ends meet.

Snyder effectively conveys the circumstances of a man whose musical vision stretched deep into the 20th century but who could never quite overcome the political, emotional, and financial turmoil of his everyday life. In Snyder’s prose, it’s an irony as tragic as it is fascinating.

This book review appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

See all our book reviews.