On Music: the flute solo in Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune


Earlier this week, I introduced you to the woodwinds via a wonderful Mozart piece, yet one which didn't include one very important instrument: the flute. So I thought I'd spend the entire post today making amends. Of course, the flute (and its predecessor) is one of the oldest instruments in the world, appearing first around 4,000 B.C. made out of bones, hooves, and horns. The Greek God, Pan, the faun (half-man half-goat), is said to have invented the panpipe—a sensual kind of flute—when the nymph he loved was turned into a reed.

From those early wooden flutes, the instrument developed and eventually, through the 19th century "German flute," evolved into the sleek silver version we use today. One of the most famous orchestral pieces featuring the instrument (and another personal fav, by the way) was written by Claude Debussy for Diaghilev's famous Ballets Russes in Paris and premiered there in 1912.

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As Diaghilev was want to do, the ballet brought some of the most talented artists together in collaboration, all commissioned to compose a piece inspired by the sensual poetry of L'après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) by Stéphane Mallarmé. Nijinsky did the choreography and danced the role of the faun, creating one of the biggest scandals of Paris that year.
In the newspaper Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette wrote: "We have had a faun, incontinent, with vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness." In reply, the sculptor Auguste Rodin published a defense of the choreography and in a letter to Le Figaro painter Odilon Redon expressed the wish that his friend Mallarmé could have seen "this wonderful evocation of his thought."

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