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Myth and Legend: Prélude and Daphnis

I have always been fascinated by the works of Debussy and Ravel. I remember even as a child, when my father would play in his old sound system, some of the Preludes that Debussy wrote for piano. And I also remember vividly when I first performed the ‘Pavane pour une infant defunte’! I remember how the melodic lines and harmonies that are so characteristic of his writing, caught me and awakened a curiosity in finding out more about the famous Impressionist composers. The motivation for writing this article comes from this place of nostalgia and interest now allied to my personal search for improving my flute playing. My intention is solely to reiterate the importance of the flute solos and the flute section in Prélude and Daphnis, and how Debussy and Ravel used the flute as a tool to describe mythology throughout the compositional and orchestration process showcasing so many different colors and emotions.

As a performer, every flutist must know the solos in the orchestral pieces Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) and the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912). They are mainstays of flute audition in every orchestra in the world, so they became the most important solos in the flute repertoire and a reference for the next generations of composers and orchestrators.[1] Debussy and Ravel did not develop a brand new writing for the flute through those solos, but they understood its language and peculiarities, explored them and had success. Both composers show, under what appropriate musical circumstances, how the flute can be employed with all its qualities, regardless of the size of modern orchestra. This paper will show the importance of the flute solos and the flute section in Prélude and Daphnis, and how Debussy and Ravel could use the flute as a tool in order to describe the mythology and their orchestral pieces throughout the compositional and orchestration process.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is based on the poem by the famous French poet Stephané Mallarme. The story involves several aspects of Greek mythology such as fauns, nymphs and satyrs, nature, fantasy, illusion and metamorphosis. “The most explicit reference the present story makes is to the myth of Pan pursuing the nymph Syrinx, who escaped him by turning into a bank of reeds. In turn, Pan cut the reeds, and from them he fashioned his pipes.”[2] It shows the love of Pan and Syrinx, and also tries to explain the origins of the flute. This scenario was the inspiration for Debussy to create this musical piece for reduced orchestra, which is a mark in the course of the music of the nineteenth century regarding to the break with the traditional concepts of orchestration, harmony, form and rhythm.[3] The flute solo in the Prelude is the opening theme, and depicts Pan (the pastoral flute god), waking from his deep his deep sleep in the late afternoon. The flute emerges alone, unaccompanied as if opening the door for the atmosphere of dream and mystery. The theme is developed throughout the piece and it can be heard being repeatedly played by other instruments in the wind and the string sections or through some composition techniques such as augmentation, diminution and fragmentation. However, whenever the flute plays, this melody and its characteristics remains intact.

            The line of the solo is built around few notes: C#4, G3, C#4, G3, C#4, E4, B3 and for the last A#3. The polarization between the C#4, G3, C#4 (the tritone) is Debussy’s technique to narrate the beginning of the myth of Pan; it causes in the listener’s mind the feeling of doubt regarding to tonality. Based on the C#4, the beginning’s tonality of the Prelude can be interpreted as C# major or minor – because there is no third chord, but when the melody lies in the G3, there is no certainty. The return to C#4 represents even less tonal security, and finally there is no traditional cadence resolution when the theme ends in A#3. The opening theme has the feeling of not of a real beginning, but the melody causes the impression of coming from previous place. The exact description from the firsts verses of the poem: “Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer. Aimai-je un rêve?”. The faun is talking about the nymphs, but Marllamé does not explain who they are.[4] The only thing implicit is that the faun is looking for them. The doubt of the tonality is connected to the verse in such a good mastery.  “Debussy was unquestionably the man to convert the dream character of Mallarmé’s poem into musical terms; and in the first section of the prelude, where, as with the poem, the dreamlike state of the faun is the central object of interest, Debussy is at his most original. As an evocation of hesitancy and uncertainty, the opening flute solo, followed by its harmonically ambiguous variations, is one of the most memorable ever penned.”[5]

            The choice about the C#4 has also a very interesting purpose. In order to describe Pan, Debussy chose to start the Prelude by using the only note in the modern flute which has a similar timbre as the pipes of a Pan flute, because of the similar operating procedure between both flutes. The Pan flute consists of natural pieces of bamboo hold together, which is quite different than the modern flute used nowadays based on the Boehm System.[6] Both flutes work as the same process, which means, the flutist needs to blow across the open tube to produce a musical tone.[7] The difference between them is that the Pan flute has different tubes in different sizes to produce many tones. The sound in the modern flute is produced by pressing the keys to open and close the holes in the body of the instrument, which will produce different tones. The C#4 is the only note (together with the C#5), that has no interference of any of the keys of the mechanical system of the modern flute to produce the sound. The tube is all open and free, as in the Pan flute. The relationship is perfect: the C#4 is the reference of Pan and his flutes in a sense of poetry, music and mythology. Thus, the clarinet plays the theme at measure 31 and the oboe at measure 86, but never, only when the flute plays, beginning on the C#4.[8]

            The writing for this flute solo reveals one other Debussy’s intention to relate the poem and the music and this is the key for the music atmosphere in the entire work. The quality of the tone for the C#4, G3, C#4, the chromatic scale which serves as a connection between those notes and the special tone quality of the middle range of the flute, “sweet and with little carrying power” create the impeccable character to describe the waking up of the faun in the heat of the late afternoon when the night is coming.[9] This range is not brilliant, as in the higher notes in the flute or opaque as in the lower notes, but warm and obscure, as the warm shadows of the trees described in the French poem. Furthermore, the ametric rhythm in this melody is the precise description for the faun’s illusion and the previous confusion between his dream about the nymphs and the reality.

            The last point about this solo for flute is about the correspondence between the musical texture (including harmony) and the description of the faun moving in the garden in search for the nymphs, in the first poem’s section (lines 4 – 41). Debussy shows this faun’s moving by simple changing of the accompaniment and harmony for the flute solo. In the first time the flute plays unaccompanied, but the musical texture changes the next three times, when the orchestral tissue has strings and woodwinds and the harmony is always different (DM7, C#m/B and E7/9 successively), symbolizing the idea of the faun walking into different environments. Debussy’s perception to describe the myth and the poem is fantastic.

A similar kind of precise description of a myth by using the flute as tool, is the flute solo in the ballet Daphnis et Chloé.[10] This tale is a story about two kids that were found in the forest and were raised in separate by two different families. As youths, they fell in love for each other and together, look forward to know about the art of lovemaking. The ballet is a “vivid idea of the luxuriance of musical invention and of orchestral radiance.[11]”  On every page of this piece, Ravel looks for fresh and distinctive grouping of a combination of instruments.[12] There is diversity, originality and convincing elaboration.[13] In this work Ravel showed his maximum as a composer. The treatment for harmony, form and orchestration are meticulously calculated. In the second part of the ballet (and in the Second Suite), Ravel describes Pan throughout the flute solo.

The connection with the tale and the flute solo, regards to the moment when Chloé is kidnapped by pirates and Daphnis prays to the nymphs to help her to return. The nymphs call Pan, and he rescues Chloé. A banquette is held in his honor, and that is the moment when Pan plays a melancholic song with his pipes, or flute (picturing his love for the nymph Syrinx), and Chloé dances. This scene is also narrated in the ballet; however, Ravel’s approach is quite different than Debussy’s in order to describe Pan. Unlike as Debussy’s Prelude, this flute solo appears just once during Daphnis. Besides, this solo is not the theme of the work, and there is no evidence of its development throughout the piece.

The flute solo, expressed in a skeletal form, outline the notes G#5, C#4, C#5, B3, B4, D#4, A#3 and D4. “Each note is repeated at least three times, sometimes much more. The intervening notes (scales, connections) are of an almost ornamental nature. They grow almost from a simple pattern to a florid one.”[14] Indeed, this solo contains many more ornaments and scales compared to the solo in Prelude and its complexity challenges the flutist. In this piece, even more that in Debussy’s work, the flute is a natural speaker inside of the orchestra. While the strings are conducting the harmony, the flute provides the perfect character to this musical moment.

            Ravel explores the flute in its best. Is this solo, he shows the agility of the instrument throughout the rising scales and downward chromatic following notes, that lead and connect the melody by symbolizing Pan’s anxiety to love Syrinx. The anxiety, which sounds as an attempt and insistence, is found in the repetition of the B3 when the rhythm changes in a progressive way into small figures: syncope, then triplets, thirty-second notes and sixty-fourth notes. Ravel explores the sensitivity, sweetness and melancholy throughout the long phrases where the performer can express the passion the god felt by the nymph. Those characteristics can also be seen by an indication of dynamic. The crescendos and decrescendos symbolize the paradox of the tension and tranquility presents in the feelings of Pan. It is impressive, how Ravel can gather the myth and the passion by making the flute the translator of this moment.

            Likewise, the composition technique used by Ravel for this flute solo deserves attention. Ravel reuses the rhythm motives and transposes the melody to engage and fascinate the listener, and works out to ensure that this is not noticed. The first motive:

reappears later in ppp:

as if an echo, Pan in remembering his beloved. This next motive sounds as if the flute in improvising.

The second measure is a variation of the first:   

The “echo” of this measure can be heard in this measure:

The last moment in the solo when this back and forth happens is in this measure:  

and in this one:           

Throughout this composition technique the magic character of the flute is employed once again in music to describe the enchantment presents in the myth of Daphnis.

            The uncertainty of the tonality is other important point about this solo. In Daphnis Ravel goes beyond of Debussy, in comparison with the solo in Prelude, and explores not just the tritone, but traditional and exotic scales. The first scale is a V chord dominant that was supposed to lead into F# minor key, but the melody does not rest in the F#. Instead of that, Ravel insists in the G#, the minor ninth, as if the love of Pan goes beyond Syrinx expectation. The harmonic tissue for the accompaniment in the strings has a complex progression. The chord the flute entrance is basic the triad F#m (F#, A, and C#) and has the added minor sixth D which is altered to D# six measures later. When the melody rests in the C#, the harmony rises to E and forms a minor seventh chord.[15] “At 177, the minor ninth G is added. For the following four measures, the minor seventh chord appears (the two lower tones being common to the preceding chord) and Ravel interchanges G# and G natural, thus obscuring and elongating the tonality still further. Five measures after 177, the root and seventh are raised (E#, G#, B and D#), and in the seventh measure the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth partials are added.”[16] All the following chords (A#, C, E and G; A#, C#, E and G#; C, Eb, G, Bb and D; and A#, C, Eb, Gb, Bb and D) “are harmonic derivatives from the chords preceding them and are derived either chromatically or by common tone.”[17] The key of F# major establishes just at the end of the flute solo. This complex harmonic progression, for the string accompaniment in the Dorian mode, is the music scenario for the dance of Chloé while Pan plays his pipes declaring his love for Syrinx. Rave’s description for the feelings of the pastoral and flutist god is incredible.

            The last important aspect about Prelude and Daphnis regards to the composer’s orchestration choices by using the flute section in ways to still support the mythological narratives. Debussy uses a section with 3 flutes. To keep the atmosphere of mystery, he forces himself to not use the brilliant timber of the flute during the piece. His writing for the flute section in Prelude is concentrated by using its middle range in unisons (as if adding a new light for the faun’s afternoon),

rotating the 1st and 2nd flutes (in places where both are playing fast notes) and later,

dividing the section in 3 different parts but only in the orchestral tutti in order to increase the musical tissue.

On the other hand, Ravel uses the flute family: 2 flutes, Piccolo and Alto flute. His approach for the flute section seeks to employ the flute in all its extension. He does not use unisons between the flutes, however his writing allows an interesting game among all flutes. For the beginning of the second part of the ballet, Ravel uses the agility of the flute to create an effect that sounds like a river flowing; which agrees with the description registered in the score: “Aucun bruit que le murmure des ruisselets amassés par la rosée qui coule des roches”.

By the end of the flute solo in Daphnis, the whole section comes to action. Ravel wrote lots of fast notes for the first and the second flutes, but they must sound as only one; that is the challenge. His writing for flute for this place is perfect, despite of the difficulty technical difficulty. The synchronization must be impeccable, in order to create the sound of just one flutist. The piccolo interventions are in the same level of difficulty, which confirms the Piccolo not just as an extension of the flute, but an important instrument in the orchestra.

The real surprise happens when, according to Ravel’s description registered in the score, Chloe’s dance gets excitement and she falls down in Daphnis’ arms. The flute section is united throughout a single scale which starts in the high notes on the piccolo, followed by the first and second flutes that by the end, connect to the alto flute. The four flutes must sound as if just one magical flute, that changes its acoustic dimensions, plays a scale in glissando effect that covers a range of four octaves.  The orchestration effect is perfect and shows the reason why Ravel is the master of orchestration. Besides, he was one of the first composers to use the alto flute in the orchestra and the first to create this kind of effect for the flute section.

Debussy and Ravel expanded the writing for the flute section, each one by their on approach, challenging the performer and influencing the further generation of composers and orchestrators. After all, without the flute solos and the special attention to the flute section, all the connection between the myth and the music is lost. With no doubt, the light and color presents in Prelude and Daphnis are in the most part under the responsibility of the flutes. It is pity that the most important books of orchestration do no mention those aspects regarding to Debussy’s and Ravel’s flute writing. In Prelude and Daphnis, both French composers elevated the flute to other level in the orchestra. With no doubt, those orchestral pieces would lose, in terms of quality, if the flute solos and the treatment for the flute section would not existed. It is also sad that, many performers play those flute solos but do not have any background information that connects the music to the myths. Certainty, the concepts presented in this paper can help the flutists to perform Prelude and Daphnis with more and more musicality.


[1] Michel Debost, “Ravel and the Flute”, in Debost’s Comments (December, 2001), 2, Flute Talk.

[2] Laurence D. Berman, “‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ and ‘Jeux’: Debussy’s Summer Rites, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Mar., 1980), 228.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Arthur Wenk, “Debussy and the Poets” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 158.

[5] Laurence D. Berman, “‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ and ‘Jeux’: Debussy’s Summer Rites, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Mar., 1980), 228.

[6] Boem System.

[7] Ibid, 73.

[8] Arthur Wenk, “Debussy and the Poets”, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 162.

[9] Samuel Adler, “The Book of Orchestration”.

[10] It is also in the Second Suite Daphnis et Chloé.

[11] Edward Burlingame Hill, “Maurice Ravel”, in The Musical Quarterly, (Vol. 13, No. 1, Jan. 1927), 141.

[12] Ibid., 142.

[13] Ibid., 142.

[14] Michel Debost, “Ravel and the Flute”, in Debost’s Comments (December, 2001), 2, Flute Talk.

[15] Jeanne Marie White, “Harmonic analysis of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe suite no. 2”, Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, 69-71, May 1994.

[16] Ibid., 69-71.

[17] Ibid., 69-71.

About Guilherme Andreas

The fabulous flutist Guilherme Andreas began his musical journey in church’s wind ensemble in Brasilia, Brazil.

He started his Bachelor of Music in Flute Performance at age 15 working with Dr. Beatriz Castro, at the University of Brasilia. In 2010, Andreas was appointed principal flute of the Brazilian Marine Wind Symphony in Rio de Janeiro, working with this distinguished ensemble until 2014. Once in Rio, Andreas continued his flute studies under the supervision of the FrenchBrazilian Professor Odette Ernest Dias at the Brazilian Music Conservatory, where he also earned a graduate diploma in Chamber Music under the direction of the principal cellist with the Brazilian Symphony, Sr. David Chew. Andreas also studied with Claudia do Nascimento (Orquestra Sinfônica de São Paulo – OSESP) and Michel Bellavance (Conservatoire de Musique de Genève).

Andreas’ powerful sound, interpretation and engaging stage presence have earned first prize in many national competitions in Brazil including the São Paulo Symphony Masterclass Competition (performing for Emmanuel Pahud – Berlin Philharmonic). In 2014, Andreas won the Música no Museu National Competition, which awarded him with a scholarship to pursuit his Master’s in Flute Performance at James Madison University in Virginia. Once in the States, he performed the Reinecke Flute Concerto with the JMU Symphony as one of just two winners of the JMU Concerto Competition.

In 2016 Andreas was accepted into the studio of Professor Emily Skala (Principal Flute with the Baltimore Symphony) at the prestigious Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and was also the recipient of the Peabody Career Award. During the same year, Andreas made his debut at Carnegie Hall performing with the New England Symphonic Ensemble as guest principal flute. Recent performances include recitals and lectures in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Duke University, and Johns Hopkins University. Currently, Andreas serves as Music Director of Grace City Church of Baltimore and was recently appointed principal flute of Symphony Number One (Baltimore’s newest chamber orchestra). Andreas hopes to continue his intensive study of the flute to launch a career as an orchestral musician and soloist.
  1. Bravo! Wonderful informative scholarship!

  2. Such a great article! Very detailed and informative. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Kirsten Price

    Great insights, thanks so much for sharing!

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