The Myth of Pan and Syrinx
April 19, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Last week, we talked about the myth of Orpheus and its presence in various musical pieces. This week, I thought we’d talk about another myth: Pan and Syrinx. In mythology, Pan is the god of nature, shepherds, and pastoral music. Pan (known as Faunus in Roman myth) is identifiable by his goat-like horns, legs, and hindquarters. He has the head and torso of a man. Pan, like Orpheus, is associated with music. In one story, Pan challenged Apollo—a lyre player—to a contest of musical skill. Apollo was awarded the prize, although Midas, who was a friend of Pan, disagreed with the decision. In retaliation, Apollo gave Midas a pair of donkey ears. Pan’s instrument was a set of pipes, and how he got the pipes is another part of the myth.
Syrinx was a nymph known for her chastity. According to the myth, Pan was attracted to Syrinx and pursued her, but she was not willing to lose her virtue. She tried to escape his embrace, running to a river and calling upon the river nymphs to help her avoid his advances. The nymphs transformed her into hollow reeds found at the water’s edge. Pan bound some of the reeds together with wax and blew across them to find they made a pleasing sound. These “panpipes” are known as Syrinx. This myth was the inspiration for a piece of music by French Baroque composer, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737). Although his work isn’t often performed today, he must have been well respected because contemporary François Couperin sent his daughters to learn from him. His cantata for voice and ensemble, Pan et Syrinx, was published in his second book of cantatas around 1716. Two hundred years later, in the first decades of the twentieth century, two composers would both write pieces based on the myth, Danish composer Carl Nielsen in 1918 and Claude Debussy in 1912.
Nielsen (1865-1931) was inspired by reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and he composed an eight-minute symphonic poem based on the Pan and Syrinx myth for a concert in 1918. Although he programmed the piece on the concert before it was even written, Nielsen managed to complete a score less than a week before the performance. The piece was composed for full orchestra, but features the woodwinds prominently. It’s an effervescent and charming work and it shows Nielsen’s talent for orchestration. Pan and Syrinx was well received at its premiere, one reviewer calling it “Debussyesque,” which is as good a way as any to transition to a discussion of Debussy’s version of Pan and Syrinx, which itself inspired a number of “sequels,” if you will.
Claude Debussy liked the timbre of the flute. He used it to great effect in many pieces including his famous Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune from 1894. He composed Syrinx for solo flute in 1912, although the piece was not published until almost a decade after Debussy’s death. Syrinx was meant to be incidental music for a play by Debussy’s friend Gabriel Mourey. Pan is a character in this play. Debussy’s music was to be played off-stage as Pan played one last melody before dying. The composer had originally meant the work to be called La flûte de Pan, but when the work was published, it was called Syrinx to distinguish it from La flûte de Pan, a song Debussy composed in 1897 for the song cycle, Chansons de Bilitis.
Debussy’s Syrinx is the first piece in the twentieth century that was written for an unaccompanied flute solo. It is therefore a historical marker for flute performance and a standard work in the solo flautist’s repertoire. Debussy achieves a lush sound with the instrument, and subverts any tonal expectations by using the whole tone scale (which avoids any references to cadences or major-minor gestures) and the pentatonic scale (used often in folk music). Furthermore, he keeps the listener from feeling a definite sense of pulse by allowing the player freedom in performance, and by using unexpected combinations of long and short note values. To emphasize the rhythmic freedom of the piece, Debussy reportedly composed the work without barlines or breath marks, allowing the player to choose the mode of performance. The published version includes an editor’s barlines for the sake of clarity. The melody is chromatic without being jarring or discordant. Debussy, who admired the sounds of folk music and of pastoral music, managed to tap into these idioms with the brief, but breathtaking Syrinx.
The music of Debussy has inspired countless musicians and composers, but Richard Rodney Bennett, composer of both art music and film scores, and a performer of jazz and cabaret music, has a special connection with Debussy’s late works, particularly Syrinx. Bennett has written a series of pieces influenced by this work, including After Syrinx I for Oboe and Piano, After Syrinx II for solo marimba, Tango After Syrinx for solo piano, and Dreamdancing. There are four contrasting movements in After Syrinx I, and each one is melodically linked the opening of Syrinx. Bennett reminds the audience of the original work with the opening oboe line. The first movement is features a slow, but flexible tempo that recalls the rhythmic freedom of Syrinx. A scherzo changes the mood entirely before allowing the oboe a cadenza. The work ends with another Adagio movement, as if the peace of the natural world has never been disturbed.
After Syrinx II was composed for William Moersch, a percussionist. Bennett wrote the work in 1984. Like Debussy before him, Bennett avoids traditional tonality and subverts any tonic expectation, yet manages to create a melody that is instantly accessible. Like After Syrinx I, the movements are connected and flow seamlessly, one into the other. Bennett’s use of repeated melodic patterns and exploitation of the dynamic range of the instrument draw the listener into this sound world. There are three main sections in the work, and the center movement is the weightiest. After Syrinx II is expressive without being emotional, and light without being inconsequential. Tango After Syrinx was composed for solo piano. Again, Bennett uses the inspiration of Debussy’s original piece to create something fresh. The Tango avoids the rhythmic associations of the title dance, instead allowing listeners to hear what might be fragments of a continuous movement.
It’s astounding how much material has grown out of Debussy’s original piece, and in general, it’s lovely to see what kinds of music arise from a myth, especially one so ancient. Because of its connection to music, the story of Pan and Syrinx has proved fertile ground for composers. We saw something similar with the myth of Orpheus. There’s no doubt that there will be further musical interpretations of these mythological stories, and that the repertoire will be enriched by their presence.