Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
This is the piece that launched a thousand solo flute pieces, a genre that hardly saw a new entry in the 150 years between Telemann and Debussy. In that time, the flute transformed from a wooden instrument with just a few keys into a sleek, often silver item with full keywork. And so one of the oldest instruments became a totem of modernity. More pieces followed: in 1936 came Varèse’sDensity 21.5 (titled literally after the density of platinum), and by the late 20th century a flute solo was practically a requirement for “serious” composers.
But back to the basics: in Greek mythology, and as told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx, who turned herself into a thicket of reeds by the water’s edge to escape. Pan cut the reeds to make his pipes, and that was the end of the nymph.
Debussy wrote Syrinx as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s Psyché, a dramatic poem intended for the stage that premiered in 1913. The scene in question does not feature Syrinx, but rather two other nymphs (Pan knew many) called L’Oreade and La Naiade, while they overhear his flute in the distance. However Debussy’s original prompt might have been slightly different: the playwright also suggested the piece should be “the last melody Pan plays before his death,” a different scene.
Truth be told, Debussy didn’t consider this an important work, and certainly didn’t expect it to jumpstart the modern flute repertoire. To him it was a one-off: his manuscript is lost, and it was only published posthumously in 1927 from a secondary source. Even the title is editorial: Debussy simply called it “Piece for Psyché” orFlûte de Pan, with the publisher choosing Syrinx later.
Its two-and-a-half minutes are evocative, filled with color, and open-ended enough to give the performer wide space for interpretation. The beginning is reminiscent of the flute solo that opens Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (1894), but instead of blooming into an orchestral poem, Syrinx wanders off into solitary musings and elaborations. Avoiding a conventional form, the opening measure comes back three times, each time farther apart (and once an octave lower), always with a unique, improvisatory continuation.