About this work
Asked by his frequent correspondent, the poet and dramatist Gabriel Mourey, to provide a score for his adaptation of the Psyche myth, Debussy expressed his reluctance thus: "What kind of genius is required to revive this ancient myth from which all the feathers of the wings of love have been plucked?" In the end, however, the composer sufficiently mustered his creative powers to produce a short incidental work for Mourey's play. Although Syrinx (1913) may seem relatively uncomplicated on the surface, especially since it calls only for a lone flute, its modest appearance belies its substance. In its simplicity of utterance and highly emotive language, Syrinx immediately recalls Debussy's Prelude à l'après midi d'un faune (1892-1894), and, likewise, evokes that work's sensual Symbolist resonances, inspired by the poetry of Mallarmé.
In both works, the composer's musical language is immensely cultured and, at the same time, in the forefront of contemporaneous musical modernism. This is most powerfully evident in the use of whole-tone scales and other devices that lend the music a strange ambiguity. In Syrinx, Debussy de-emphasizes, even dispenses with, conventional tonal centers; much of the work's potency instead derives from its delicate, fragmentary melodies and highly seductive timbral effects. Scholar Edward Lockspeiser points out that, significantly, given its implied association with the first of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (1900-1901), Syrinx was originally titled "Flûte de Pan." He further opines that "it is as exquisitely and lovingly designed as the flute solo for Mallarmé's mythological faun. It was the one project that was not allowed nebulously to float about in Debussy's mind during his long friendship with Mourey."