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.

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