Sunday, May 10, 2009

Syrinx - who is playing whom?

Peter Paul Rubens- Pan & Syrinx (Staatliche Museum, Kassel)

A thought occurred to me today while playing and listening to several recordings of Debussy's Syrinx. Most likely, it was not an original thought. We all learn the story this of piece: its role as incidental music in Gabriel Mourey's Psyche, and the story of Pan. This half-goat, half-man pursues the nymph Syrinx, who, at the water's edge, in order to escape her pursuer, is transformed into a water-reed. Pan then transforms a bundle of these reeds into a flute, whereupon he plays his dying lament.

Mostly I hear flutists (and program-note writers) describe this piece in terms of Pan. It's Pan's song, Pan's longing, and Pan's dying. But is it really? Is Syrinx only a bundle of reeds? Does she have a voice of her own, and if so, what does she sing?

A short digression:
Please understand I am not trying to interpret this piece in terms of sexual politics or present some sort of feminist's viewpoint. I got to thinking about Syrinx when trying out different spectrums of sound in order to produce color changes. Why did I get hung up on this? Well, I'll divulge another pet peeve I have: flutists who make "color changes" only by adding air to the sound, thinking that an airy, unfocused sound is sufficient for a difference in color. Sometimes it is. I've heard it in Debussy, I've heard it in slow movements of Bach, and on many other occasions. It is soo boring if one only uses this trick. Sometimes some air in the sound (or complete air) is musically appropriate. But if that is your only choice of "color change" then please try out something else: work with different harmonic components in the sound. One way this can be done is by changing the vowel sound inside the mouth.

Anyway, back on topic - experimenting with color changes led to thoughts of transformation. Then I thought "hey!, that's not Pan, that's Syrinx!" She's the one who morphs.

That led to other aspects of Syrinx' role: flight, and, like Pan, longing. Not the sexual longing which is associated with Pan, but perhaps a longing for freedom of corporal constraints, or longing for unity with the elements. You can add on your own interpretation here. Please note I am not denying the element of sexual longing in this work - it is certainly there.

There are probably other elements of Syrinx' role I've not thought of yet.

When I thought about the subject of flight, that led me to think about the rhythm. Peter Lloyd tells of his lessons with Caratge in Paris on this piece. After Lloyd's first run-through of Syrinx, Caratge sent him home with his tail between his legs, admonishing him to "play with a metronome!" When Lloyd came back having done so, only then was Caratge ready to begin working on the piece musically. Peter-Lukas Graf also lays emphasis on attention to the rhythm. He points out that this is not "free music" it is "freely-composed music" (having neither conventional form nor tonality). Because the rhythms for that time-period were rather complex, it is all the more necessary to make clear contrasts of duplets (16th or 8th notes) and triplets.

And what about rubato? Absolutely! It's part of the fright and flight that I imagine the nymph Syrinx experienced. Fleeing, then slowing down to peek from behind a tree to see if Pan has lost her trail, then fleeing again. Much of this yearning forward and holding back is already composed into the piece, so if one adds to it, one must understand the framework wherein it occurs.


  1. Syrinx (or La flûte de Pan, as it was originally called) is actually stage music. In the scene a nymph describes what she is hearing, while the music plays in the background - and what she describes is a dance, a very sensual dance that pulls her into its rhythm, until she cannot but start dancing herself in trance. She even speaks of beating her foot to the dance's beat! More on the musical side, it actually is a sarabande. Think of it in terms of (I won't even try to write musical notation on the web!) "long, short | short, long" (where long equals two shorts…). And what about rubato? Absolutely no! ;) (or well, not like (modern) flutists would be thinking about it). As a listening hint: listen to sarabandes by Rameau, or even by Debussy - even though I don't have too much faith in the performance style of a sarabande by modern pianists, listen to clavecinistes… And the "Egyptian" piece in Debussy's Epigraphes Antiques is written in (almost) the same scale La flûte de Pan is written in… I guess I should write down all of this in detail some day, as I know my opinion on the piece strongly differs from most musicians' approach… And I have strong reason to believe we have been pursuing a huge misunderstanding for decades… :)

  2. Claudio I'd very much look forward to reading what you have to say if you did "write down all of this in detail some day".
    Peter-Lukas Graf mentioned in a recent masterclass the sarabande connection too. It is an intriguing thought that and gives an impulse in organising the phrases rhythmically.
    However, I'll ask the following without having studied sarabandes in detail: wasn't the idea of a sarabande in the Baroque tradition a stately, courtly dance? Would the musical (not rhythmical) evocation of this noble dance be out-of-place in the mythical drama of Psyche?

    In La flute de Pan and Epigraphes Antiques, Debussy uses whole tone and octatonic tonalities to their advantage since they have no particular "center", no hierarchy, and can easily evoke a lability, an "otherness" that suggests sensuality or something "exotic".

    Could it be that he was doing the same with rhythm? That is, deliberately avoiding the traditional hierarchy of a 3/4 meter of Strong, weak, weaker....
    And didn't the original version have no bar lines anyway?

    I’m also curious as to whether the Rubato marked in the score is original. Even if it is, you and I are definitly in agreement that it often goes too far. Looking forward to your (or other's) ideas!

  3. I'd think about the Sarabande primarily as an elegant dance, and as such it would not be out-of-place in a sensual, fin-de-siècle stage music. As far as rhythm is concerned, the Sarabande isn't really "strong, weak, weaker", but "long, short; short long" - the difference might be small, but I believe there actually is a difference: there are, so to speak, "two beats" in each bar (a long one, and a short one…). The idea that the long one has to equal two short ones I don't believe to be that strict (after all, in "proper" Waltz time the three beats aren't of equal length either, are they?). A dance, and the Sarabande is no exception, is about a specific pulse, not a metronome beat…

    The sources for La flûte de Pan are the edition based on Marcel Moise's publication, one manuscript (not autograph) copy, and a few bars Louis Fleury published in his article The Flute and its Power of Expression. The manuscript has bar lines just like the edition - with one single exception, where a bar line is omitted, and I have very strong reasons to believe that is no mistake. I don't have the Fleury article at hand, but if I remember correctly, there are bar lines as well - the part Fleury publishes, however, does not really match the music we today know as Syrinx. The manuscript has very clear rubato markings that clearly show where it starts, and where it ends - just like Debussy usually does in his manuscripts…