Entitled “Afternoon of a Fawn,” this is one of my favorite pieces we have analyzed this semester.
Isn’t it absolutely gorgeous?! You would never guess that it is the music behind the ballet about a Fawn having his sexual awakening… unless you saw it. (I highly recommend you watch it—it’s an original performance by the great Rudolph Nureyev of the Ballet Russe, which is worthy of its own analysis).
There is so much to talk about within this piece, but I will outline some of the reasons I could just listen to it over and over again.
Like Wagner’s operas (and a lot of this piece, no matter how much Debussy would deny it, is like Wagner’s operas), it opens with a single melody line. That very first note is what, to me, makes the whole piece— is it dissonant? consonant? The piece has barely begun, and yet we are already adrift in the ambiguity of it all!
(Note for my non-musician followers: This matters to the musician, a lot. If it is consonant, you would decrescendo through the note, but if it was dissonant you would crescendo and use the propulsion to bring you to the next note).
Then the note (which is, indeed, subtly dissonant) goes down, not by a scale, but by a whole tone scale (with some chromatic passing tones) to a tritone below the opening note. A tritone! An interval so dissonant the early church banned it and called it the Devil in Music!
When at last the solo ends, hinting at E major, it is answered by a beautifully lush arpeggiated chord. Ah! At last! Consonance!
Not so quick. What was that chord? Major? Minor? Neither. Indeed, it is a Tristan Chord— a minor triad… with a major 6th. Within the world of Wagner’s Tristan, this is hugely important as, just as the chord is conflicted between major and minor, it symbolizes the conflicted interests of the characters within the show. Even now, we do not know what to expect from Afternoon of a Fawn.
Will it ever get resolved? After that first arpeggiated Tristan chord, it gives us… a V7… of Eb. But recall, the solo was hinting at E major! But there’s no more development of that to help our ear find it’s footing… rather there is just silence. SIX beats of it. Well there are 6 beats on the score, but how do you count silence when there is no strong sense of meter!? This is anticipatory silence, that adds more dissonance to the music—when will we know!?
Finally, there is relief for us confused listeners—a V13 to a I chord! Yes. That’s right. This cadence—the most consonant of all cadences— has been “dissonanced” to provide so much tension that there is NO DOUBT that there is indeed a key to this piece—the key of E major. And as if to reassure us that Debussy isn’t pulling our leg (ear?), the melody is repeated… in E, with a deep E major (add 6) chord to support this.
Later in the piece, Debussy will repeat this V13 to I cadence to provide some stability amongst all the chordal abutment and continue using whole tone melodies that have since come to really symbolize dreaminess—a very fitting sensation for a piece about a fawn!
The piece’s recap[itulation] begins with something ironic/novel/funny (take your pick) : finger cymbals in the place of timpani.
Normally the timpani is used to mark Vs and Is, but here, Debussy throws that all out the window with the use of cymbals to show that this version of the melody is the REAL recap/end—not any of the previous false recapitulations.
Finally, it ends with something new for the music of the time: non-directive, non-functional (aka hierarchyl) harmonies of a more concise version of the opening solo lines—over a tonic pedal.
Then, as if to allow the audience to fall back asleep from this dreamy music in peace, it ends on a solid, predictable, E major, tying the whole piece of music together.