Close this search box.

Syrinx Gone Wild

Walfrid Kujala | October 2013

    Recently I have been rereading one of my favorite books on music history, Music in the Twentieth Century, by William W. Austin (W. W. Norton, 1966). Austin emphasizes the crucial importance of Claude Debussy in having laid the foundation for a brand new musical language in the twentieth century. As a flutist, I am especially pleased that Austin chose Syrinx and Afternoon of a Faun as his prime examples for describing and analyzing this new breakthrough (pp. 7-18). Regarding Syrinx, he wrote: “The melody seems like a long cadenza, a rhapsodic improvisation. But not a note of it is random…..The rhythm of the melody is as intricate and peculiar and intelligible as its contour.”
    I first learned Syrinx the summer just before going off to Eastman to start my freshman year. My first three or four lessons with Joseph Mariano were mainly on etudes and the Bach E Minor Sonata. Then he asked if I had ever studied the Debussy Syrinx, and I said that I had indeed learned it a few months earlier. He then asked me to play it for him. When I finished, he had a troubled look on his face and said, “Wally, don’t you want to pay more attention to the rhythm? This piece was not meant to sound like a free improvisation. Debussy was very specific in his notation of tempo, dynamics and rhythm. Using a tasteful rubato is desirable, but don’t get carried away with so many distortions, especially in the dotted eighths followed by the two thirty-seconds. You’re playing the thirty-seconds so fast that they sound like grace notes. They need to be treated as vital elements of the thematic structure, not just as fleeting ornaments.”
    Then Mr. Mariano played it for me. What an unforgettable performance! Such a gorgeous tone, exquisite phrasing and interpretation, as one would expect from this renowned artist. But what made it all so utterly convincing was the integrity of his rhythm. Even the specified rubato section on the second page had a recognizable rhythmic logic to it.
    The impact of that lesson on me was so compelling that I think back on it often, especially this year as we observe the Syrinx centennial (November, 1913). Many years ago, in homage to Mr. Mariano, I had written an article for The Instrumentalist (February, 1976, “A Performance Checklist for Debussy’s Syrinx”). In that article I pointed out many of the common rhythmic pitfalls and how to avoid them. Then in 1986 Thomas Nyfenger published his marvelous book, Music and the Flute, in which he lists “Twenty-Five Perversions of Syrinx” (pp. 127-132). With his typical dry humor Nyfenger wrote, “Debussy is said to have wished that his name had been German, as then performers would give respect and attention to his notation. Because he was French, many assume great license and run him over with multitudes of ‘interpretations’, incorporating such distortions as to render the original unrecognizable.” Nyfenger’s Perversion No. 12, for example is at bar 15: “Ah, triplets! Well, sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth is much better, especially since the grace notes are so awkward.”
    Nyfenger and I both agreed on the details of what needed to be done to ensure an honest performance. We only disagreed on our labels. He said perversions, I said deviations. But after listening to over sixty performances of Syrinx in my YouTube laboratory as part of my research for this article (specimens included alto flute, trumpet, flugelhorn, saxophone, contrabass clarinet, panpipes, string bass and melodica, as well as regular flutes), I may be forced to downgrade to the P-word.
    As a way of highlighting some of the more flagrant deviations, I decided to construct a compilation version of Syrinx to illustrate many of the obvious errant rhythms. (An example is shown below; the full version is available at the end of this article.) Of course no single player did all these deviations in performance, but it is interesting to note that a few of the deviations were adopted almost unanimously – gone viral so to speak. Though it’s not exactly comparable, I’m reminded of the melismatically overloaded versions of the Star Spangled Banner as sung by Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Maria Carey, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Hudson, Whitney Houston, et al. (Go online to investigate How to Sing the National Anthem at a Sporting Event.)

    One might be tempted to raise an alarm: “Please don’t try the deviant Syrinx compilation at home!” But seriously, it won’t do any harm to play through the compilation several times to better familiarize yourself with these pitfalls. By intentionally experiencing such errors in practice you can reinforce the importance of being able to avoid them in concert.

Three more practice tips that I remember from Mr. Mariano:
1.    For better rhythm on the dotted eighth and two thirty-second note figures, subdivide the dotted eighth into six thirty-second notes as in the example below, tonguing them very gently. Play them all-tongued the first time, then with the two-note slurs, and finally with the three-note slurs.

Rhythm Exercise

2.    Don’t be misled by the tenuto dash over the dotted eighth note. It is more of an expression mark signifying intensity of tone, but not necessarily stretching the dotted eighth beyond its printed value. (Teachers of course use the tenuto dash habitually to identify notes that are being rushed.)
3.    Transpose Syrinx a half-step lower and a half-step higher without writing it out in manuscript. At first this may seem very hard to do because of the numerous accidentals, but it will increase awareness of the intervallic shapes as well as the rhythm. I practice transposing often when I review familiar repertoire. Several examples are shown on pages 126-127 of my Vade Mecum of Scales and Arpeggios where I transpose several passages from the Mozart D Major Concerto, the D Major Haffner Symphony and Marriage of Figaro Overture into eight different keys.
Meanwhile, I would award the Grammy for best rhythm in Syrinx to Onorio Zaralli and Emmanuel Pahud (tied). Except for some undue rushing in measure 13, Zaralli pays careful attention to tempo and rhythm, yet conveys a very thoughtful and expressive interpretation. Pahud’s excellent rhythm comes across in a natural, unforced way, with just the right touch of expressive rubato, and of course with a radiant tone. The venue for his video, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, Denmark, is also very striking, not only the gallery but also the exterior wintry landscape. Pahud, wearing a stylish regal costume, is artfully photographed, and there are many well-focused close-ups of his fingers and embouchure.

    And finally, here is my nomination for a Syrinx Three R’s centennial slogan: Remember and Respect the Rhythm!       

Full compilation version of Syrinx