Interpreting Debussy’s Syrinx

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday/Sunday. Happy full moon/April fools/Easter weekend!


My husband and I are Disney fanatics. There is seldom a weekend that goes by that we do not find ourselves in front of the television watching one of the classics. A few weekends ago, we were watching Bambi (a traditional Disney staple if there ever was one), and were stunned by just how incredibly beautiful the art of animation was before the onset of the digital age. As children, we do not typically have an artistic frame of reference when watching films and often miss the beauty of the art to concentrate on the story being told (and, in this case, drying our eyes when Bambi’s mother is met by a hunter’s bullet). This film uses rich, warm-toned colors so magnificently that it is as if you are watching a sequence of paintings placed one after the other. I began to compare this type of Disney “impressionism” to works by Debussy, who, as we know, was inspired by impressionist artists such as Monet. I began to see the same type of warm-toned paintings in my imagination as I listened to Syrinx and was fascinated by the new interpretation I was able conjure by connecting this story to art. In today’s blog, we will take a closer look a Debussy’s Syrinx for flute seule and examine how Debussy uses notes in place of brush strokes to create a musical version of a painting.


First thing’s first – The Story. Syrinx tells the story of the river nymph, Syrinx, who was pursed by the god Pan. In a panic, Syrinx runs to the edge of the water and begs the water nymphs to help her escape Pan’s pursuit. In response, she is transformed into a bundle of hollow reeds. Pan discovers the reeds, which created a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Legend states that Pan subsequently cut the reeds and fashioned them into a set a pan pipes, know better today as a pan flute.

This is a story about transfiguration that occurs not once but twice. The piece begins with what we may call the Syrinx “theme,” but given the range and chromatic meanderings of the melody, it sounds more like her cry for help to the water nymphs:

syrinx 1

We begin the work in a state of panic, which brilliantly sets the scene for the ensuing drama. The next phrase, beginning in measure 3, develops Syrinx’s cry for help and, with the addition of triplet figures, helps her to explain her wishes to be transformed into reeds to the water nymphs. The pause at the end of this phrase, which follows the sustained pitches of Syrinx’s final pleas, gives the water nymphs a pause to hear her cry and roll up their proverbial sleeves to perform a bit of magic. The muffled octave transposition of Syrinx’s cry for help indicates that she has been taken under the water where, following a series of explosive and free falling chromatic pitches (reminiscent of the scene in Disney’s Cinderella when the carriage and horses transfigure back into a pumpkin and 4 mice at the stroke of midnight), Syrinx is changed into a bundle of reeds. Her new persona is indicated in the following phrase, marked by clunky grace notes that suggest the sound of reeds knocking against one other in the evening breeze.

syrinx 2

The melody speeds up quite suddenly 5 measures after the measure marked “Rubato,” with the presence of triplet 16th notes, indicating that the frustrated god, Pan, has found his way to the river and is enraged when he cannot find Syrinx. The trills beginning 2 measures before au Mouvt represent the god’s breath as it falls across the reeds and the sustained Bb that concludes the phrase is the idea lightbulb being lit in Pan’s mind to create a flute from these reeds (this note always makes me think about the scene from How The Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinch smiles maniacally as he comes up with “wonderful, awful idea”).

syrinx 3

The au Mouvt represents Syrinx’s final cry for help as she is again transformed into a pan flute. Unfortunately, there is nobody to help her this time as Pan gathers the reeds and, with the help of a few more spinning triplet 16th notes, wraps twine carefully around the bundle to create his infamous pan flute. En reteant usher in the melody that Pan plays on his pan flute. This concluding phrase is solemn, a little bit creepy, and, somehow, ironically calming as the last 2 measures outline all of the pitches in Pan’s flute.

syrinx 4

Syrinx is traditionally performed in the dark. This is done in part to help the audience picture the events of the story in their imaginations without any distractions from the stage or gallery. I think that modern performance of this work also calls for digital projections of impressionistic artworks depicting rivers, water (Monet’s Water Lilies for example), magic, or the story of Syrinx itself. As the music winds its way through transfigurations, so do the colors of these paintings from object to object and scene to scene. Combining music and artwork may help to create a deeper interpretation of the story by connecting music to story and color. I urge you to experiment with digital projections in your next performance of Syrinx to create a more vivid story between the lines of manuscript.

untitled (3)

How do interpret Debussy’s Syrinx? What pictures come to your mind when playing through this work? Have you performed this work in the past? Did you use a darkened room or digital projections? Please comment below.


Happy Fluting!




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