Debussy was particularly enamored with the paintings of Impressionist painters Monet and Renoir. These artists strove to convey an impression of an object, rather than a realistic copy. Lines were blurred, often mixed directly on the canvas. Brush strokes were left bare and visable, and colours juxtaposed upon one another. Impressionist painters were obsessed with light and luminous colour, striving to convey the idea of light pouring out from within their paintings. They painted the same inatimate object over and over again in different lights and from different angles. Monet's Haystack series is three paintings of the same haystack, one at dawn, one in the late afternoon and another at dusk.
Another Impressionist Debussy greatly admired was the poet Stephane Mellarme, and in particular his poem 'Prelude to the afternoon of a faun'. Impressionist poets broke away from traditional forms of poetry and sentance structure, relying instead on the music and sound of actual words to convey an impression of an object, rather than literal meaning. Mellarme's poem tells of a young faun dozing in the woods, drunk on wine. He is visited by three young nymphs, but is unclear whether they are actually visable or whether he is daydreaming and imagining them there.
Debussy loved this poem so much he wrote a piece by the same name, inspired by Mellarme's work. An orchestral tone poem, it remains one of his most popular works. Impressionist composers broke away from traditional practices in relation to form (rejecting forms such as the sonata and symphony in preferance for smaller forms such as the rhapsody and arabesque) and instrumentation, ignoring the large romantic orchestra. Instruments were instead chosen for their individual and unique timbral quality and tone colour that the composer wanted to bring to their music. Debussy's piece uses two harps and a large string section which are often used in unison, creating a rich, lush feeling. He ignores almost entirely the brass and percussion sections, with the exception of 2 muted french horns and javanese antique cymbals towards the end. The flute and clarinet he uses predominately in their lower registers, again creating a muted, breathy sound. The form is loosely ternary-the origional 'faun's theme' is repeated over and over in endless variety, much like the painters of the day this melody is seen in various 'lights' and from different 'angles'. This is cleverly acheived through a wide spectrum of compositional devices such as reorchestration, ornamentation, transposition, reharmonisation and even complete transformation as the melody follows the faun through various stages of tranquillity, playfulness, desire and eventually back to rest.
Just a little over 8 minutes in length, at the debut of 'Prelude to the afternoon of a faun' in Paris in 1878 the audience demanded it be played a second and even a third time.