“Danseuses de Delphes” (The Dancers of Delphi) evokes mystic-toned scenes of languorously dancing maidens at the site of the Temple of Apollo in the ancient Greek city of Delphi, home to the legendary Oracle of Delphi. The music breathes a gently quaint and exotic air of antiquity. Many of the harmonic and structural devices that Debussy employed in the pieces that follow are first heard here: elements of modal, chromatic and diatonic harmonies – as well as quasi-orchestral textures and isolated chords surrounding the slow and sensual melody.
The whole-tone scale predominates in “Voiles” (Sails or veils), framing passages of pentatonic and chromatic harmonics. Debussy leaves the listener guessing as to which of the title definitions (if either) he favors. Some have “seen” in the music the billowing of a ship’s or sailboat’s sails as a gentle wind fills them and then fades away, with a steady B-flat pedal tone functioning throughout as the boat’s ever-solid “anchor.” Another often-cited impression is of vague, but alluring feminine forms partially hidden by gauzy veils that also obscure their demurely flirtatious glances.
Unlike the preceding piece, there’s no ambiguity as to the musical imagery of “Le vent dans la plaine” (The wind on the plain). It’s not hard for the listener to inhabit the vast expanses of Debussy’s windswept plain, whether light, skittering breezes or blustery gusts prevail. But you should know that it serves as a companion work of sorts to Voiles, different though the impressions may be. Reversing that piece’s harmonic patterns, this one sandwiches a whole-tone central section between pentatonic outer episodes.
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Sounds and perfumes swirl in the evening air) is definitely the most languorous of the Book I preludes. This lush and lovely “nocturne” features haunting melodies within rich harmonic tapestries, evoking the sultry atmosphere of a soft and quiet summer night suffused with subtle sounds and sweet, aimlessly wafting scents. The two prevailing themes are first heard separately, but appear later cunningly interwoven, to magical effect.
The energetic and dancelike “Les collines d’Anacapri” (The hills of Anacapri) is named for the spectacularly scenic higher-elevation region of the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples; Debussy visited there often. We first hear the tolling of bells as if from afar, interspersed by sprightly outbursts before a manic, tarantella-like theme in Neapolitan style bursts forth. This gives way to an piano’s lower registers and the central section’s sensual melody. The opening “bells” then reappear to usher in a reprise of the original dance, finishing the piece with a sense of giddy excitement.
In stark contrast, “Des pas sur la neige” (Footprints in the snow) presents what is surely the bleakest and most depressive soundscape of all the preludes. We enter a chill and desolate world with the opening ostinato’s slow footsteps trudging through deep snow. This prelude’s genius is apparent in the adroit layering of melodic elements both above and below the relentlessly plodding ostinato, building into a feeling of sadly searing intensity. A brief major-key interlude near the end seems poised to bring momentary respite – but the wintry aura soon returns to stifle all hope as a sequence of descending bass notes and contrasting upper-register melodic elements end the piece with a particularly keen sense of empty desolation.
In “Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest” (What the West Wind saw) – the most virtuosic of the Book I preludes – swirling, quietly ominous figurations soon erupt into a hard-driving depiction of prevailing winds as they blow a destructive storm onshore from the sea. The listener’s senses are quickly overwhelmed by mounting winds and swells that cascade landward with burgeoning violence; you can almost “see” the explosive plumes of watery spume as huge waves break against the rocky shoreline.
Perhaps Debussy’s most beloved and frequently heard individual prelude is “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair). Sweetly soothing and deliciously lyrical, this comparatively uncomplicated music depicts a young girl caught up in a personal reverie as she sings of her dreams. The composer’s gentle impressionistic wizardry here lies in his use of a pentatonic scale for the melody, while harmonizing its notes with diatonic chords.
Debussy loved a good musical joke, and one of his wittiest and best is “La sérénade interrompue” (The interrupted serenade). It tells the story of a young Spanish Romeo who is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to serenade a lovely señorita with his guitar. The serenade begins as the piano recalls both the strumming and plucked notes of a guitar – only to be interrupted by the slamming of a window just as his “song” gets going properly. After several further interruptions, our suitor realizes that he is getting nowhere and slinks away. Listen for how effectively Debussy “orchestrates” the music, with fluid legato lines layered over the guitar effects – all the while maintaining the piece’s steadfast Spanish character.
Another prelude that’s often performed separately is “La cathédrale engloutie,” (The sunken cathedral), inspired by the legend of the cathedral at Ys: the mythical city that is said to have been sunk off the coast of Brittany during the dark ages as God’s punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. This eerie masterpiece is an impressionistic tour-de-force – employing both pentatonic and modal scales, ghostly bell-tones, echoes of plainchant, and seismic low-C pedal points. The music unfolds in a huge arch as the structure emerges from the subdued depths into full above-water sonic glory before slowly sinking again beneath the waves. The piece’s blend of a “submerged” feel and its aura of vast internal spaces is unique in all of music.
“La danse de Puck” (Dance of Puck) gives witty and whimsical musical life to the mischievous sprite of Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music – structured in sonata form – unfolds in a merry romp. It has a generally modal feel to it, though bitonal and chromatic harmonies are also heard as Puck flits and flutters through his fairytale surroundings. Listen for the playfully teasing effect that Debussy achieves by means of the precise figurations in the opening passages – like his syncopated rhythms and his two-note slurs with the staccato second note.
“Minstrels” (Minstrels) – another example of Debussy’s penchant for humor in music – was inspired by minstrel shows: a popular form of public entertainment in 19th-century America that began to appear in Europe around the turn of the century. They consisted of stylized African-American song-and-dance routines, spirituals and instrumental pieces as well as comedy sketches, all done in blackface. The music consisted of jazz forms of the day, like ragtime and blues. After opening with what sounds like a banjo shuffle-tune, the piece takes on the varied melodic flavors, rhythmic vitality and quick-change excitement of the typical minstrel show – complete with snippets of a sentimental song and recurrent drumbeats.
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