1894: Debussy: The Afternoon of a Faun, age 32

Mr. Peabody Says:

This recording is a miracle. The conductor here was 82 and lived only two more years. You can see someone holding his hand while walking to the podium. He looks too old and frail to lead an orchestra. Then he creates absolute magic, stretching this piece two minutes longer than anyone else on the planet. He was a wizard.

Note: I wrote about this groundbreaking piece piece of music in the past, but at the time I linked to Stokowski, who is very good. But this man, Celibidache, has done something with Debussy’s piece that is a true miracle. It’s several minutes longer than anyone else. It’s like having my sense of time altered, so it seems both very long and yet over in almost no time because I am totally in the music. I want to hear each instrument, each phrase, each idea. I can’t wait to see what he is going to ask for next. I can hear that he took endless patience planning each moment, yet it sounds new each time.

One of the compositions that changed the course of musical history…

If we examine what everyone else in the world was doing in 1894 it becomes obvious that this piece is unique, and it is always mentioned as something that was a musical turning point. It’s hard to believe today, when everything just sounds so natural, inevitable and just plain right. But in its time it was quite revolutionary, though in a very pleasant and easily acceptable way.

Celibidache/MPO (live, May 13 and 14, 1994)

Total time: 13:36 (1:14:14:50)


  • 3 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in A and Bb, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns
  • 2 harps, 2 crotales
  • strings

What are a crotales?

They are antique cymbals, are percussion instruments consisting of small, tuned bronze or brass disks. They are commonly played by being struck with hard malletsYou can also strike two disks together like finger cymbals, or you can bow them. Modern crotales are arranged chromatically and have a range of up to two octaves.

Too controversial to be staged…

Unlike so many other great musical compositions, this was a hit from day one, and it’s been a favorite even since. However, a ballet based on this same music was considered much too risqué and sparked a controversy almost as extreme as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Debussy wrote in the printed program:

The music of this Prelude is a very free illustration of a beautiful poem by Mallarmé. It is little about summarizing this poem, but instead suggests different feelings which lead to desires and dreams of the Aegipan (the fawn) during this torpid afternoon. Tired of chasing fearful nymphs and shy naiads, he abandons himself to a voluptuous sleep that animates the dream of a desire finally fulfilled: complete possession of all of Nature.

Originally the 1st of three movements…

Debussy had intended to compose a second and third movement, an Interlude and Paraphrase finale, respectively, but changes his mind, writing all his ideas into just one.

7 thoughts on “1894: Debussy: The Afternoon of a Faun, age 32

  1. The different spotlights of the different sounds of the orchestra really makes this special. It’s calm, but I feel I hear a slight undertone of unrest. Almost like you’re looking at something cute on the outside, but with a slightly evil interior.

  2. This is a really nice piece, and I especially liked the very loud part about half way through. Its got a lot of character and if I had to give it a score out of 10, I’d have to say 8 or 9.

  3. I’m listening to Celibidache conducting. I’ve heard this piece before, but never like this – the individual instruments’ phrasing, and the bringing out of instruments’ voices – the whole thing.

  4. I feel like one of the most underrated instruments is the oboe. Of course this is just the personal gripe of a oboe player but it is still accurate. The sound that emits from an oboe played by a skilled musician. It can make or break a song like this. Debussy knew what he was doing when adding oboes.

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