Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
The Star: Dancer on Pointe, c. 1878–1880
Gouache and pastel on paper, mounted on board
The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1969.40.P

In 1894, Debussy wrote one of his most influential pieces, a composition based on a poem by Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy wrote that his music was intended to be freely illustrative of the poem: “…there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.”

The composer had initially thought this piece would be part of a theatrical project around the subject of the half-man, half-goat creature of Greek legend, but this idea never came to fruition. Instead, this piece was turned into a ballet, choreographed and performed in Paris by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes. Its 1912 premiere at the Théâtre du Châtlet in Paris sparked controversy for its sensual content and the unique and difficult choreography. Critics dismissed the music in no uncertain terms. Time has proven them wrong as Afternoon of a Faun has taken its place as one of the world’s most popular and revered masterpieces, along with its composer, Claude Debussy and the group of so-called Impressionist artists who still inspire us today.

I'm James Conlon, thanking you for celebrating Impressionism with me at the Norton Simon Museum and the Los Angeles Opera.