Syrinx by Claude Debussy. You probably know the piece. Chances are you played it for contest back in high school. It’s a great little composition, relatively short and not too technically challenging. And it’s got a great name. The name always brings to mind the Great Sphinx which in turn conjures up visions of Egyptian royalty and cat worship. That’s a great image that really works for me, but is it really what Debussy had in mind?
The other day I was reading an article about (of all things) prehistoric music. The author was talking about the challenges of reproducing the music of ancient man when all we really know about it is what some of their instruments looked like based on artifacts and cave drawings. One of the ancient instruments mentioned in the article was the syrinx or pan flute. Huh. So it refers to a set of pan pipes?
With a little more research I learned that the musical instrument was named for a wood nymph from Greek mythology. Syrinx was a great hunter and prided herself on her chastity. As the story goes, one day the randy god Pan was smitten with her and began his relentless pursuit. Wanting nothing to do with Pan, she fled his advances. Arriving at the river’s edge, she entreated her sisters, the wood nymphs to help her escape. They obliged by turning her into marsh reeds. Pan, hot in pursuit, reached out to grab her, but was too late, he found himself hugging reeds. Pan’s disappointed sighs over the reeds made beautiful, plaintive music, so he fashioned the first set of pan pipes out of what remained of his would be lover.
Wow, that’s a much better story than anything I could concoct involving the Great Sphynx. But come on, couldn’t the wood nymphs come up with a better solution than turning her into reeds? Seems like a pretty steep price to pay for rescue from a molester. I’m indignant at the injustice if it all. Yet I have to admit that playing this lovely piece with this story in mind brings new meaning to the piece.
Syrinx was written by Claude Debussy as incidental music for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey, a play which was never completed. There was actually a speaking part in the middle of the piece, to be inserted at the double bar after measure eight. Originally titled La Flûte de Pan, the piece was to be performed within the play by Louis Fleury, a prominent flutist of the time. Fleury retained a copy of the work and popularized it, playing it frequently throughout his career.
In 1927, following Fleury’s death, Fleury’s personal copy of the manuscript was edited by Marcel Moyse and published, for the first time, under the name Syrinx. The piece was dedicated “a Louis Fleury” in recognition of his close association to the piece.
Historically, Syrinx holds an interesting place in flute literature. It was the first major solo work for the flute written in the twentieth century. The flute was not generally regarded as a solo instrument during the romantic period resulting in very few major flute compositions.
The flute’s resurgence in popularity during the early twentieth century may be due, in part, to the development of the Boehm flute. Theobald Boehm had begun manufacturing his redesigned flute in 1847 offering a complement of keys similar to what we play today. His design included larger tone holes, a cylindrical bore and a metal body. The result was an instrument with improved intonation and a more consistent tone quality throughout its range. This new design was adopted almost immediately in France, but its popularity lagged in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany. But by 1912, when Debussy composed Syrinx, the Boehm flute was the standard. This superior flute paved the way for the flute to re-emerge as a solo instrument.
Syrinx is the only solo work for flute that Debussy composed, however he did leave us with a number of lovely works featuring the flute. He wrote two chamber works: Music for Chansons de Bilitis for two flutes, two harps and celesta and Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. And of course there is the orchestral work Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which prominently features the flute.
It must have been disappointing for Debussy to put such great effort into the music for Psyché only to have it never performed. None he less I like to think that he would be proud of the enduring popularity of this solo work for flute, the byproduct of his failure.
And what of Pan, the nymph chasing goat-man who’s lecherous behavior inspired Debussy and Mourey to create this work? Pan of the god like ego, would he expect anything less than adoration for the musical account of his exploits? As Carly Simon would say, you probably think Debussy's song is about you.
The final word goes to Syrinx herself. The gentle nymph and lover of the hunt lost her life in this sad tale. All that’s left of her is the echo of her voice in the pan pipes and of course this beautiful piece by Debussy. Listen for her the next time you play this piece or hear it performed.
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