Syrinx was composed as incidental music for the third and final act of the ‘dramatic poem’ Psyché by Debussy’s friend Gabriel Mourey; the author wanted it to be ‘the last melody played by Pan before his death’ performed from the wings. Syrinx in Greek myth was a nymph, pursued by the god Pan; she did not return his feelings and hid from him by turning herself into a reed. Pan plucked the reed and played a lament on his flute. The symbolism here hardly needs underlining, nor does the connection between Syrinx and other great Debussy flute solos such as Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune.
A manuscript (not in Debussy’s hand) features cues from Mourey’s poem, which according to Marcel Cobussen ‘recounts the myth of Psyché as told by the Latin author Apuleius in his Metamorphoses, inserting the story of the death of Pan, according to Plutarch’s version, in the third act.’ The piece, premièred by its dedicatee Louis Fleury, was originally titled La flûte de Pan and is commonly performed offstage. Perhaps to avoid confusion with Debussy’s song of the same title to a text by Pierre Louÿs, the publisher Jobert retitled the piece Syrinx when it was published in 1927.
Syrinx is the first in a long line of solo flute pieces composed for the modern instrument: without it, Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5 and André Jolivet’s Cinq incantations would surely not have been written.