flute therapy




Syrinx by Debussy
Written by Alexa Still   

We love this piece. Besides being a real flute piece by one of the best known composers (and not a transcription), this is a wonderful example of French impressionism beautifully written for the flute. Syrinx is especially popular in auditions and recitals where it is a super fit for the short ‘contrasting’ piece and, being unaccompanied, saves precious time in rehearsal with the pianist.

I grew up on interesting hearsay about Syrinx; it was originally meter-less (no bar lines) which was ‘corrected’ by Louis Fleury, the flutist who premiered this work and kept close possession of the score until after Debussy had died, and that the work was programmatic like Debussy’s L'Après-midi d'un faune inspired by the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, which was considered quite scandalous in it’s day. I remember several teachers relating the story of Pan (the Greek god of music, depicted as a combination of half goat and half man, and often seen with pentatonic Panpipes at the ready) and his love, or lust, for Syrinx (a stunningly beautiful nymph with magical powers). Depending on the X-rating, this story has something along the lines of Pan playing hide-and-go-seek with Syrinx, then Syrinx turning herself in reeds along the river back. Pan, being unaware of her magic and thinking she was hiding amongst the reeds, knocked them down. Then, when she was not to be found, he realized he in fact killed her. In his misery and to remember her, he made the panpipes.

A new edition of Syrinx was published in 1996, bringing to light the ‘autograph’ score (yes, sorry to say there are some different notes, missing dynamics etc) and presenting the flute part as it was intended in the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey. The extensive notes by Anders Ljungar-Chapelon include context; the play’s spoken lines from beforehand, and a few lines down on the first page (yes, during!) with translations. Debussy Syrinx (La Flûte de Pan) für Flöte solo, Wiener Urtext Edition, Schott/Universal Edition, UT 50173, may still be unavailable in the US because copyright can last 70 years there, but it can readily be purchased anywhere else. I was very excited to receive my copy, but have to admit to finding the whole experience a little disappointing. After trying to adopt the authentic version, I realize I simply prefer the inaccuracies of the previous edition. It doesn’t help that I am a little dubious; I am just not convinced that composer’s originals are never revised and/or improved beyond the ‘autograph score’. And what about my teachers’ story? Well, the new edition has detailed notes on correspondence concerning the placement of the music within the three act play, and contemporary commentary. Fleury’s description sums up the prevailing mood: “(Debussy) indulges in no temperamental explosions; he confines himself to the severest and soberest expressions of great mental suffering”.

One assumes the story I’ve been told was an inspired creation to help a student sound convincing and became an enduring pedagogical success.

So, I leave everyone to arrive at their own opinions regarding old edition vs new, and move on to some practical comments involving the older edition, which one can download for free from the Werner Icking Music Archive at http://icking-music-archive.org/scores/debussy/Syrinx.pdf (You’ll note some better known free music websites have this work listed but temporarily blocked, pending copyright clarification)

And I’d like to acknowledge the influence of my teacher Thomas Nyfenger. A stickler for musicality and respect for the composer, Nyfenger’s book “Music and The Flute” (1986), (available from Flute World, Detroit, Michigan) devotes some 6 pages to “Twenty-Five Perversions of Syrinx”. Tom, as his students affectionately called him, loved word plays. ‘Perversions’ probably doesn’t need further explanation, but it may help to know there are 25 complete measures in the score. His notes continue in the same vein, making this the most amusing ‘how to’ imaginable. This book, in my view, is a ‘must have’ for advanced players.

Many Debussy scholars complain that we routinely attempt ridiculously slow tempos in Debussy’s music. The flow of this opening phrase is dramatically easier to achieve at a moderate tempo rather than a slow one. The term Très Modéré (very moderate) probably means counting a gentle three per measure rather than the quaver/eighth note we may need to start with (in order to learn the rhythms). And at a slightly faster tempo means a musical connection is also much easier to achieve between the snippets of music, or gestures, in measure 5 and 6.

I’d also like to draw attention to the lyrical lines in this music having much greater importance than articulation details. The slurs indicated look like those you’d see on a string player’s music, recognizing bowing needs rather than an indication of a phrase. I’m certainly not recommending that we ignore these indications, but the lyricism will be conveyed best if your sound doesn’t get too clipped mid phrase by these slurs. Think of the little notes as a lead in to the next dotted quaver/eighth, with a very light tonguing.

We often like to play the opening very softly. Mf, with a good strong downbeat is a much clearer musical phrase for the listener and gives us room for magical pianos and diminuendos that close this opening segment.

Finally, the intonation of measures 5-8 warrants some attention. Be wary of flatness with the C flat in measure 6, in comparison to the C flat one octave lower in the measure 5. If you get this interval right, it will be much easier to play the remainder of the phrase in tune!

Here we have a double bar and this is where the spoken line goes in. Many flutists put quite a pronounced break in at this point.

Measure 9 starts afresh, and slightly up-beat in tempo. But for some reason we flutists love to dwell on low notes, and I often hear this bit slow down, which can seem musically a little laboured. The low E natural to D flat is very awkward, but PLEASE practice ‘jumping’ the little finger over to the D flat key at the very last moment. If you can keep your little finger on the E flat key for most of the duration of the E, this passage really sounds a lot better in tune and timbre.

The end of measure 10 is a beautiful turn of phrase, extended further going into measure 12. These gestures, and in measure 13, can sound light and “tossed off”. (Maybe this is the chase scene?) To me, this seems very French… so well suited to French artistic flair and flamboyance.

Then we sink in to despair (or the search scene?) with a chromatic noodling and acciaccaturas accentuating the chromatic-ness. Current day Debussy scholars think that a diminuendo marking implies a louder dynamic at the big end even though it may not be additionally stated, so that would put the loudest bit on the acciaccaturas with the piano part on the first note of the triplets. At first, this seems odd, but in contrast, the lyrical phrase in the rubato (measure 16-17 etc) is gorgeous, and all of this provides a tremendous vehicle for tone colour shifts; measure 16 might suddenly be a mellow Julius Baker-type sound as well as having some ebb and flow in tempo. The upper D flat finishing m. 17 is traditionally produced as an overblown low D Flat (harmonic)... another way to add really interesting colours.

Measure 20 begins the ascent up to the paused B flat in Measure 25 (Pan realizes Syrinx is dead?) and most players kick in some degree of accelerando and crescendo through here. Some work with a metronome to ensure you understand the progressiveness in the rhythms pays off handsomely here with slightly tricky fingerings likely to distort your perception. The first tremolo usually works by trilling one or both trill keys from the D flat. Experiment to see what sounds best in tune on your flute.

The Au Mouvement (m. 26) is a very dramatic version of the opening (Pan’s anguish?), this time with a crescendo. The diminuendo in m.28 can be heart-stopping in contrast. Going once more down into the lower register, familiar phrases and repetitions again provide excellent opportunities to change one’s sound and vibrato, helping to make this such a perfect solo flute piece! But try not to get too soft too soon… the perdendosi (dying away) is magical. The diminuendo (including Pan’s panpipes sounding the pentatonic scale?), and dying away, needs to evaporate in such a way that your audience is transfixed and can’t tell where or when the sound went. Don’t rob them of this magical moment by lowering your flute too soon!

alexa-still flutist (flautist)Alexa Still records for Koch International Classics and performs concerts internationally. She has just finished an elected term as Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Flute Association (USA) and is now based in Sydney as Head of Flute and Chair of Woodwind at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You can read, see and hear much more at her website: www.alexastill.com