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Debussy’s Syrinx: analysis, history and interpretation

Debussy syrinx analysis, interpretation and history
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Mario Friscia

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Debussy’s Syrinx: introduction

The purpose of this guide is to help you find a clear and detailed answer to the most crucial questions related to the history of Debussy’s Syrinx, its analysis and interpretation.

To start out, I’m going to shed some light on the history of the composition; then, I’ll tell you the story of the mythological characters that have inspired Debussy in the creation of Syrinx and will lead you through the intricate debate concerning the actual theatrical application of the score.

 

Debussy, author of syrinx
Claude Debussy. Public domain

 

A key part of this guide is the one dedicated to the analysis of Syrinx in terms of tempo, rhythm, dynamics and melodic range; in addition, I’ll take into account the symbolic meaning of the score, trying to connect the notes written by Debussy with the character of the satyr Pan and the theatrical context for which this solo piece has been created.

Another main section is that devoted to give you a 360 overview of the numerous versions of Syrinx that have been uploaded on Youtube throughout the years by different performers, each of which has tried to adapt the melody, originally written for flute, to various instruments: trumpet, saxophone, cello, oboe, clarinet and pan flute.

For those of you who are flutists and are interested in hearing some practical tips on how to interpret and perform Syrinx, I’ve gathered some of the best tutorials available on Youtube in a specific section of this guide called:

If you want to deepen the historical and musicological aspects of Debussy’s Syrinx, I invite you to consult the last two chapters, where I’ve collected a series of free online resources, such as pdf-s and sheets, as well as some bibliographical suggestions that will help you expand your knowledge about this unique piece for unaccompanied flute.

We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s dive into it!

 

Why did Debussy write Syrinx?

Debussy’s decision to write Syrinx did not arise from a spontaneous desire of the French composer but from a specific request made to him by a friend of his, the symbolist poet and playwright Gabriel Mouray (1865-1943).

In fact, Syrinx was composed for Mouray’s dramatized poem titled Psyché, with the aim of serving as background music and without any ambition to become a concert piece in its own right.

 

Mouray_psyche_debussy
Gabriel Mouray, author of Psyché – Public Domain photo

 

Therefore, to better understand the history of this masterpiece, musical historians have relied on the correspondence between Debussy and Mourey, which began in 1909 and ended in 1913, a few weeks before the work went on stage.

But what kind of musical instruments were used in Syrinx?

The only instrument employed in the musical score is the transverse flute, to be played alone, without piano accompaniment, although Debussy was tempted by the idea of adding a choir.

By carefully analyzing Syrinx’s melodic range, so oriented in the exploration of the medium-low register of the instrument, we can easily realize how this solo was created by the French composer to be performed on a specific model of transverse flute, the Bohm flute, developed in 1847.

 

Bohm holding the kind of flute used for Syrinx
Theobald Bohm. Public domain

 

From the manuscript to the published edition

Debussy finished the score of Syrinx in 1913, after a long gestation period, whose phases are well-documented in the correspondence between Debussy himself and his friend Mouray.

However, its official publication took place only 14 years later, in 1927, thanks to the editorial work of Jobert, who could not base the writing of the first edition on Debussy’s original manuscript but on a copy of the latter, jealously guarded by the flutist Louis Fleury.

 

Fleury_syrinx
Louis Fleury. Public domain photo

 

Fleury was not only the first musician to have had the honor of having the original score of Syrinx in his hands but he was also the only one to own the exclusive rights to perform the piece in front of an audience.

This explains why the work was given to the press so late, more specifically, only after the death of Fleury, which occurred in 1926, and of Debussy himself, who died in 1918.

Jobert produced the first edition of Syrinx in collaboration with the flutist Marcel Moyse, who is credited with including in the score a series of bars and breath signs, both absent in Debussy’s autograph score.

 

Moyse playing syrinx
Marcel Moyse. Public domain photo

 

Click here to take a look at the pdf version of Jobert’s edition.

 

A changing title: from La Flute de Pan to Syrinx

Originally, the title given by Debussy to his piece for solo flute was La Flute de Pan.

The decision to publish it under the name of Syrinx probably derives from an editorial operation by Jobert:

in order to avoid confusion in the music catalogue between the score written for Mouray’s theatrical work and another composition by Debussy, bearing the same title and inserted in a collection of songs called Chansons de Bilitis, he decided to change the title from La Flute de Pan to Syrinx.

Moreover, let me underline that by the word syrinx Jobert did not want to allude to the Greek nymph Syrinx but to the nomenclature commonly used in Greece to refer to the specific type of end-blown aerophone played by Pan.

In this video you can listen to the vocal performance of La flute de Pan by Veronique Gens:

 

 

Fleury’s role in the diffusion of Syrinx

It was Fleury himself the musician who had the privilege, and the responsibility, of playing Syrinx for the first time.

The performance took place in Paris, in December 1913, at the Louis Mors theater, on the occasion of the staging of Psychè, a three-act dramatised poem by Mouray.

After falling in love with the composition, Fleury decided to include it in his repertoire permanently, transforming Syrinx from a sublime, but potentially unnoticed, example of incidental music to an actual concert piece, destined to achieve success all over Europe.

In line with the directives of Debussy, according to which the execution of Syrinx had to take place off stage, the French flutist continued to perform the work away from the public gaze, hiding himself behind a curtain, so as to keep intact the mysterious charm of this evocative solo.

 

Explanation of the mythological story that inspired Debussy

Debussy’s Syrinx is based on the mythological story of Pan, a Greek satyr known for falling in love with the nymph Syrinx and credited with the invention of a musical instrument called pan flute, panpipes or syrinx, in memory of the homonymous nymph who lost her life as she was trying to run away from Pan’s unwanted courtship.

According to the myth, Syrinx was a forest nymph while Pan, a lusty creature half man and half goat, was a satyr connected to the realm of wild nature and sexuality.

 

Pan, the mythological player of Syrinx
The Greek satyr Pan playing the flute. Public domain

 

One day, Pan saw the nymph and began to court her insistently.

Syrinx, who did not want to have anything to do with him, decided to escape the sexual attentions of the satyr and asked her father, the god of rivers Ladon, for help.

Ladon, hoping to save the daughter from the sexual harassment of Pan, transformed her into a bunch of water reeds just as the satyr was trying to embrace her.

When Pan realized that he was holding nothing but water reeds, he began to sigh and the airflow coming from his mouth blew through the reeds, generating a series of marvellous sounds.

The satyr immediately thought that the notes coming from the reeds were the voice of his beloved Syrinx and decided to cut them to make a musical instrument.

From that day on, every time Pan played the syrinx in the woods he felt like he was kissing the nymph, while the unfortunate Syrinx remained forever trapped into the body of the musical instrument, condemned to spend the rest of her life in company with the hated satyr and give vent to her mournful voice only in the form of notes.

 

Symbolic meaning of Syrinx

In line with a precise request made by Mouray, Syrinx was written by Debussy to represent musically the emotional states, thoughts and sighs that should have accompanied the last moments of life of the Greek satyr Pan.

Alone in his grotto and surrounded by the shadows of death, Pan plays his flute, one last time, generating a mysterious, intimate and melancholic melody that has the capacity to lead us in the realm of uncertainty, where sadness, anxiety and restlessness are combined with sensuality, hope and delicacy.

The fact that this piece had to be performed off stage has increased its evocative power and boosted the emotional effects on the audience.

Pan is there and yet he is out of sight; his presence is evoked by the musical phrases produced by the flute, his bewilderment manifests in the structural elements of the solo and their continuous variations:

from chromatism to the use of diatonic and whole note scales, passing through a series of sudden changes in the dynamics, some of them highly surprising, that bring us in the dark dimension of the unexpected.

Pan is about to leave this world and it is in this very moment of departure that the nobleness of his soul and the delicacy of his character finally seem to come to life, completely revealed by the notes contained in the melody, their rhythmic relations and dynamics.

It is as if Debussy wanted to redeem the fierce and wild image of the satyr and transform it into that of a fragile and dying creature, who’s facing the uncharted transition of death, trapped in his last dance of memories and regrets.

Ok, it all sounds good and perfectly reasonable until you discover that the solo flute written by Debussy was actually used by Mouray to accompany a different scene, completely unrelated to the death of Pan.

 

Theatrical context: the actual placement of Syrinx in Mouray’s Psychè

Thanks to the recent discovery of the Brussels manuscript, dated November 1913 and found in the private collection of Madame Hollanders de Ouderaen, we are able to place exactly the execution of Syrinx within the play.

In light of the portions of text present in the manuscript, we can say that Syrinx’s dramaturgical function is to act as a background to the dialogue between 2 nymphs, the Oreade and the Naiad, who discuss, with trembling trepidation, the character of the satyr Pan.

As we have already said before, it is Pan himself to perform the flute solo, hidden inside his cave, away from the prying eyes of the 2 nymphs and from the curious ears of the audience.

Therefore, while the initial destination of this solo must have coincided with the moments before Pan’s death, its actual location, in the light of the Brussels manuscript, appears to be completely different.

Below, you will find the original French text spoken by the nymphs, followed by the English translation.

The execution of Syrinx, it is important to underline it, takes place simultaneously with the declamation of the aforementioned text:

 

PSYCHE, Act III, Scene One

L’Oréade: “Mais voici que Pan de sa flûte recommence a jouer

(Translation: Listen to Pan beginning to play his flute again)

 

These lines act like a sort of cue for the flutist, hidden behind the wings, to start playing the first eight measures of the solo and then stop.

 

La Naiade: “Prodige! Il semble que la Nuit ait dénoué

Sa ceinture et qu’en écartant ses voiles

Elle ait laissé, pour se jouer,

Sur la terre tomber toutes les étoiles

Crois-tu que l’amant d’Eurydice

Faisait vibrer de plus touchants

Et plus sublimes chants

Les cordes d’airain de sa lyre

Non, n’est-ce pas?

(Translation: Marvel! It’s as if night had unbuckled its belt and let the stars fall onto the silent earth, twinkling melodiously. Surely Eurydice’s lover couldn’t have made such sublime and moving sounds on his lyre?)

L’Oréade: “Tais-toi, contiens ta joie, écoute

(Translation: Keep silent, contain your joy, listen)

 

Now it’s time for the flutist to continue the performance of Syrinx to the end.

As the musician plays, the nymphs continue to speak, creating an overlapping of verses and background music.

As is evident from the text above, the flute solo must not be performed shortly before the death of the satyr, planned by Mourey at the end of the third act, but in the first scene of the third act, a moment of intense lyricism in which the atmosphere is full of sensuousness and eroticism.

By watching this video you can get an idea of how words and music resonate together:

 

 

Analysis

Before carrying out an in-depth analysis of Syrinx’s sheet music, I think it is appropriate to give you some general information on the piece.

Let’s start by saying that Syrinx is a piece for solo flute written in the key of B flat minor. The meter chosen by Debussy is for most of the composition ¾. The sole exceptions are a couple of measures, placed towards the end, in which the meter becomes 2/4, and then returns to ¾.

Answering the question relating to Syrinx’s tempo is not easy, as the French author continuously modifies it throughout the piece and does not provide a clear metronomic indication but prefers to rely on a series of linguistic expressions such as: fairly moderate, restrained, a little eventful (but not too much), slowed down, rubato (stolen), moderate enough, held until the end, even more held back.

However, flutists are used to playing Syrinx at the tempo of 40 BPM.

As for the duration, Syrinx is commonly performed over a time span of 3 minutes or less.

By listening to this masterful performance by Emmanuel Pahud, you can begin to get a sense of how Debussy selects and organizes the melodic material, often making use of triplets and sudden changes in tempo and dynamics, all enhanced by the strategic presence of trills and grace notes:

 

 

What makes Debussy’s Syrinx a masterpiece in the musical literature for flute is clearly its ever-changing nature, that gives performers the possibility to experiment continuously with different levels of volume, tempo and vibrato.

In fact, the first thing that catches the eye when you take a look at Syrinx’s sheet music is the high amount of marks indicating specific, and sometimes unexpected, changes in tempo and volume.

As a result, the interpreter is required to constantly combine a feeling of spontaneity and improvisation with a strict tempo, while respecting the natural fluidity of the rhythms set for that specific section.

I have to tell you, however, in respect of Debussy’s approach to his own music, that the French composer hated the fact that people wanted to interpret the “meaning” of his compositions, trying to go beyond what the structural, melodic and rhythmic elements already had to say.

This is why my analysis will stick as much as possible to the sheet music and the actual indications present in it, although the theatrical application of the melody allows me a certain amount of freedom in imagining a possible correlation between the 3 macro-sections of Syrinx and the emotional landscapes of Pan as a character.

 

1. Opening section and main theme

But let’s look at the beginning of the piece:

in the first 2 bars Debussy presents the main theme, a powerful opening statement, ending with a mysterious diminuendo.

Bar three is a repetition of the opening statement, whose function is to reinforce the melodic prominence of the theme in the memory of the listener.

Bar four and five present some interesting notes by Debussy: an anxious sequence of crescendo-s, followed by sudden drops to piano, as if Pan was desperately trying to uplift his wild and exuberant spirit, but in vain.

When we get to bar nine, the composer decides to repeat the main theme but this time an octave lower, adding a sort of dark shade to the initial melodic phrase.

 

2. Middle section

Bar 13 hosts the highest note (A natural) touched in this part of the composition, which probably symbolizes Pan’s new attempt to re-establish his vitality, while the diminuendo which follows seems to suggest a new failure, a melancholic giving up.

The section characterized by the triplets with diminuendo projects us into Syrinx’s most secretive (and yet agitated) part, marked by a sense of obsessive repetition that seems to allude to a desire that does not want to accept the inevitable reality of loss, decay and abandonment.

In bar 19, Debussy leads us and his main character, Pan, into a new musical scenario, where the intervals and the flow of the melody abandon the previous state of anxious sadness, leaving space to hope, just like when darkness gets suddenly pierced by a ray of light.

 

3. Ending part

From bar 22 we assist to a powerful climax in volume and tempo, alluding perhaps to the re-emerging of a set of painful feelings in Pan’s heart, who’s probably becoming more and more aware of the progressive disappearance of life from his body.

In fact, the last section of the composition displays the main theme again, played in the lower octave, trapped in a series of crescendo and diminuendo, evoking the mental condition of a suffering soul who still aspires to fight against the feelings of defeat, sadness and resignation.

The last dying note embodies the frozen stillness of a farewell and, at the same time, opens a mystical portal to the realm of memory, the only place where Pan will be able to live again and reunite, hopefully, with his lost lover, the nymph Syrinx.

 

Interpretation of Syrinx using various instruments

One of the things that make this piece by Debussy particularly intriguing in the contemporary musical scenario is the fact that many musicians have tried to transpose and adapt the melody of Syrinx to various instruments such as the alto sax, cello, guitar, oboe, trumpet, including the clarinet and the pan flute itself.

As an ethnomusicologist, I always look at Youtube as the primary online source for my virtual fieldwork, in search of video content that can add new perspectives to a given topic or piece of music.

Although Syrinx is a composition specifically designed to be played on a flute, I couldn’t help noticing the large amount of videos, uploaded on Youtube, in which the interpretation of Syrinx is entrusted to a wide range of instruments.

In this section, I’d like to share with you some of the best interpretations I found available on the internet.

Let’s start with a cello version of Syrinx, executed by Luca Paccagnella, in which we notice the interpretative courage of the performer, who has decided to transfer the subtle variations in color and dynamics contained in the original flute solo to the musical texture of a chordophone instrument:

 

 

Moving to the aerophones, listen to Mary Elizabeth Bowen playing Syrinx on a trumpet:

 

 

In these other two versions, one for oboe and one for alto sax, I invite you to meditate on how the color of the original melody changes according to the type of aerophone used and to consider carefully the way in which Eugene Izotov and Eliot Gattegno, interpret the sonic rendition of the agogic markings prescribed by Debussy in the original score for flute:

 

 

 

As regards the clarinet version of Debussy’s syrinx, I’ve found particularly intriguing this execution by Mariagaia Di Tommaso, in which the musician plays the composition in the woods so as to evoke the natural environment in which Pan was used to live and produce his music according to the mythological story:

 

 

Let me conclude this journey across the interpretation of Syrinx using various instruments with this amazing performance on the pan flute by Liselotta Rokyta:

 

 

Some tips on how to play Syrinx: a selection of Youtube tutorials

After sharing with you several interpretations of Syrinx, I would like to bring to your attention four interesting tutorials in which you can find various tips and suggestions on how playing Debussy’s Syrinx on flute.

Jaimie Lee Mendoes focuses primarily on the interpretation of the dynamics signals while Emily Beynon, in addition to examining the indications present in the original score, provides a clear reconstruction of the “tormented” story behind the creation of this masterpiece by citing the original letters written by Debussy to Mouray.

 

 

 

Katherin Bryan reflects on the emotional approach that a flutist should have in order to bring to life the true spirit of Syrinx and gives some tips on the importance of the pulse and vibrato.

 

 

As regards Onorio Zaralli, what I like the most of his approach to the performance of Syrinx is the full commitment to highlight and adhere to the directions and markings provided on the score by Debussy himself.

I totally agree with him when he says that a good interpreter should be able to decipher and bring to light the real intentions of the composer without inventing anything that contradicts the nature of the score and its contextual meaning:

 

 

Free online resources: pdf-s and sheet music

In this section I’ve gathered a series of pdf-s and free sheet music concerning Syrinx by Debussy so as to help you get access quickly to a precious body of on-line literature focused on the analysis and explanation of the musicological and performative aspects of this masterpiece for flute.

Here you can find the pdf-s:

 

Cobussen, Marcel. The Meaning of Paratextual Elements in Debussy’s Syrinx.

Ewell, Laurel Astrid. A Symbolist Melodrama: The Confluence of Poem and Music in Debussy’s La Flûte de Pan. 2004

Navia, Gabriel. Tonal Infiltration and Directional Tonality in Debussy’s Syrinx.

Reiner, Maliepaard. Debussy’s melodic organization of Syrinx. 2016

 

Moving to Syrinx’s flute sheet music, these are two websites allowing you to read and download for free the full scores for flute, oboe, saxophone and other instruments:

 

Some bibliographical suggestions

If you want to know more about Debussy’s life and better understand the place of Syrinx in the overall music production of the French composer, let me suggest you the following books and articles:

 

Baron, Karol. “Varese’s Explication of Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ in ‘Density 21.5’ and an Analysis of Varese’s composition: A Secret Model Revealed.” The Music Review 43 (1982):121-134

Orledge, Robert. Debussy and the Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992

Price, Kirsten Jan. “Debussy’s Syrinx: mystery, myth, and a manuscript.” Flutist Quarterly, fall 2008, pp. 18

Nichols, Roger. The life of Debussy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques: “An Analysis of Debussy’s ‘Syrinx‘.” In: 630 b. 4 (1982)

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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