Debussy's Syrinx: mystery, myth, and a manuscript

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Author: Kirsten Jan Price
Date: Fall 2008
From: Flutist Quarterly
Publisher: National Flute Association, Inc.
Document Type: Cover story; Critical essay
Length: 4,535 words

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Mystery clouds the origin, composition, and analysis of Debussy's Syrinx. Detective work has sleuthed out some answers, left lingering questions, and added insights to assist in performance of this definitive piece, as Debussy intended it to be heard.

Claude Debussy's Syrinx, or La Flute de Pan, as it was originally titled, has become one of the most important solos in flute literature. The first unaccompanied flute solo written for the modern Bohm system flute, Syrinx is considered a landmark in music history, paving the way for other composers such as Ibert with Piece and Varese with Density 21.5. Debussy himself could not have imagined the impact of his La Flute de Pan, which may be the most performed, recorded, analyzed, and debated flute piece ever written.

Since its publication by Jobert in 1927, musicians have debated the origins, performance practice, and analysis of Syrinx. Regarding its origin, much of the interest seems to have occurred because its historical details were not well documented, and still remain somewhat of a mystery. Debussy had been asked by Gabriel Mourey in either 1912 or 1913 to write incidental music for his play, Psyche, and this short piece was the only music completed.

Louis Fleury, a French flutist, performed La Flute de Pan on November 1, 1913, at the Louis Mors theatre for the first performance of Psyche. (1) It generally has been acknowledged that Fleury held onto the manuscript, and that it wasn't released for publication until after Fleury's death in 1926. When Jobert published it, the title was changed from La Flute de Pan to Syrinx, to avoid confusion with another Debussy work with the same title. (2)

However, another version of the origin of Syrinx, often overlooked by historians, comes from the French flutist Marcel Moyse. In 1950, the editor of Woodwind Magazine interviewed Moyse and published this account:

Invited to a festive gathering at the home of a wealthy music patron, Debussy was asked to compose some music inspired by a statuette of a shepherd playing his pipe.... Debussy strolled over to the piano adjacent to the statuette and rapidly wrote his little Syrinx. He handed the manuscript to Moyse to perform that evening. The composition lacked even a bar line or phrase marking. All markings on the manuscript are those of Moyse. The little work was almost lost to flutists when Debussy showed the manuscript to another flutist who was singularly adept in appropriating manuscript copies of flute works from the library. The manuscript conveniently found itself in the flutist's coat pocket while Debussy was engaged in conversation with admirers. After the thieving flutist died, his widow, in need of money, called Moyse to her assistance in disposing of the deceased's collection of flute music. In the collection was, of course, the original and only copy of the Syrinx. (3)

This account was published again in 1991 in an article in Flute Talk. (4) The following month, Jean-Pierre Rampal refuted Moyse's statements in another Flute Talk article:

Claude Debussy...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Price, Kirsten Jan. "Debussy's Syrinx: mystery, myth, and a manuscript." Flutist Quarterly, fall 2008, pp. 18+. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A265977519