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Debussy's Syrinx

Debussy was born Archille Claude Debussy on August 22, 1862 at Saint Germain-en-Laye, France. At the age of nine, he demonstrated a gifted ability on the piano, which in 1873 led him to enter the Paris Conservatory to study piano and composition. In 1884, after previous attempts, Debussy won the Grand Prix de Rome with L'Enfant prodigue (Boulding 330).

In 1913, Claude Debussy wrote an unaccompanied flute solo called Syrinx. He based it on the legend of Syrinx, a nymph (or minor goddess), from Greek mythology. According to legend, Syrinx was a loyal follower of Artemis, who happened to catch Pan's eye one day after returning from a hunt. Pan tried to woo the lovely nymph, but she fled from him until she reached a river bank. As Pan approached, she called out to her friends, the water nymphs, to rescue her. Just as soon as Pan was sure he had captured Syrinx within his arms, he opened his eyes to find that he clutched nothing but reeds! He breathed a sigh of disappointment and was surprised to hear a tune come forth from the bundle in his arms. He concluded that, "'Thus, then, at least, you shall be mine,'" and called the new instrument, Syrinx, in her honor (Bulfinch 1).

Claude Debussy was very effective in portraying this legend. The piece has an elusive, ethereal air to it, and the rhythm is relaxed, conveying a sense of fantasy. As with his other works, knowledge of music is not required to listen and understand it. My parents, for example, know nothing about music, yet they grasped the main idea without me having to explain it. My dad said that he pictured "wood nymphs running around in the forest," every time I played it.

Works Cited

Bulfinch, “Syrinx in Myth,”, p. 1.

Goulding, Phil G. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992.

But wait--there's more!

I found something cool on the internet--a poem dedicated to Leigh Hunt, by Keats, which gives an allusion to the story of Pan and Syrinx:

"So did he feel who pulled the bough aside, That we might look into a forest wide, . . . . . . . . Telling us how fair trembling Syrinx fled Arcadian Pan, with such a fearful dread. Poor nymph- poor Pan- how he did weep to find Nought but a lovely sighing of the wind Along the reedy stream; a half-heard strain, Full of sweet desolation, balmy pain."

Check out the whole story--much more in depth than mine--at Greek Mythology Online.

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