Claude Debussy (1862-1917)
Program note written by Jacob Farmer
Approximate Performance Time:
Intermediate Advanced – appropriate for advanced high school students and lower level college undergraduates
Emmanual Pahud. Syrinx, L. 129. Ralophone Records Ltd, 2000. MP3.
Larson, Julia Ann. “Flute without Accompaniment: Works from Debussy: “Syrinx” (1913) to Varese: “Density 21.5″ (1936).” Order No. 9121464 University of Maryland, College Park, 1990. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 27 Sep. 2016.
Claude Debussy was a French composer born in 1862. Although he grew up poor, his extraordinary gifts in piano allowed him entry into the Paris Conservatory at just eleven years of age. His instructors saw Debussy’s attempts at innovation very strange. By 1880, he was hired to teach piano to the children of Nedezhda von Meck, who had previous supported Tchaikovsky. Debussy traveled across Europe, cultivating experience and exposure from Russian composers. His 1895 opera Pelléas et Mélisande was first performed in 1902 and garnered much attention, making him a leader in French music in his time. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is his most well-known composition and most famous example of impressionism. The ambiguous metronomic pulse, the unusual orchestral timbre combinations, and the uncertain sounding tonality are characteristics of the style. Debussy died from colon cancer in 1917 at the age of 55.
Debussy wrote Syrinx for unaccompanied flute, originally titled La Flûte de Pan, in 1913. The nature of the piece is debated, but it is generally agreed that Debussy composed the work for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey. While it is accurate that Louis Fleury played Syrinx for Psyché, the debate is whether Debussy wrote it for the death scene of Pan, or the beginning of the third act. There exists, however, an additional account of Syrinx’s origin by French flutist Marcel Moyse. He claims that in 1913, Debussy wrote the piece at a party with a wealthy musical patron, where Debussy was asked to write something “to be inspired by a statuette of a shepherd playing his pipe.” Moyse claimed that Debussy wrote Syrinx on a piano, handed Moyse the work who performed it for the patron, all in one evening.