Claude Debussy: Syrinx for Solo Flute

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

This is the piece that launched a thousand solo flute pieces, a genre that hardly saw a new entry in the 150 years between Georg Philipp Telemann and Claude Debussy. In that time, the flute transformed from a wooden instrument with just a few keys into a sleek, silver item with full keywork. More pieces followed: in 1936 came Varèse’s Density 21.5 (titled after the density of platinum), and by the late 20th century a flute solo was practically a graduation 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 actually feature Syrinx, but rather two other nymphs named L’Oreade and La Naiade, who 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.”

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 or Flûte 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.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.