DEBUSSY: Preludes, Books 1 and 2
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Piano Works, Vol. 4
Preludes, Books 1 (1910) and 2 (1911-13)
Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye, the son of a shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying success. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two years later, improbably enough, with Verlaine's mother-in-law, allegedly a pupil of Chopin, In 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition. In 1880, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to the Conservatoire he entered the class of Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud and in 1883 won the second Prix de Rome and in 1884 the first prize, the following year reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of the award, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back in Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes for orchestra and going on, two years later, to a succ?¿s de scandale with his opera Pelleas et Melisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that established his position as a composer of importance.
Debussy's personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after a liaison of some seven years with Gabrielle Dupont and a brief engagement in 1894 to the singer Ther?¿se Roger. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and a singer of some ability, led eventually to their marriage in 1908, after the birth of their daughter three years earlier. In 1904 he had abandoned his wife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt at suicide by the former, who had shared with him many of the difficulties of his early career, alienated a number of his friends. His final years were darkened by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which had been completed.
As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of the early twentieth century. His musical language suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic and sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more possibilities. His opera Pelleas et Melisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that never overstated or exaggerated.
Debussy's poetic sensibility and his delicate use of keyboard nuances, developed from Chopin, is shown clearly enough in the two books of Preludes, the first completed in 1910 and the second in 1913. These were published with titles given only at the end of each piece, suggesting that they were not absolutely essential to the performer. 'Danseuses de Delphes' (Dancers of Delphi), a title that suggests the influence of Satie, was inspired by a caryatid seen at the Louvre. Marked Lent et grave, the mystery of Delphi is solemnly evoked in a series of chords that make clear the static nature of the dancers at the oracle. This is followed by 'Voiles' (Sails), which carries the direction Dans un rythme sans rigeur et caressant, a characteristic depiction of a calm and distant seascape, although the title may also mean 'Veils', makes typical use of Debussy's original harmonic idiom. The third Prelude, 'Le vent sur la plaine' (The wind on the plain), offers a delicate tissue of sound, reaching a climax before finally dying away to a sustained final note. 'Les sons et les parfums tournent dans I'air du soir' is suggested by Baudelaire's poem 'Harmonie du soir' (Evening Harmony):
Voici venir les temps o?? vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s'evapore ainsi qu'un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans I'air du soir;
Valse melancolique et langoureux vertige!
(Here comes the time when, quivering on its stem,
every flower goes away to vapour like a censer;
sounds and scents turn in the evening air;
sad waltz and languorous dizziness!)
The poetic association with Baudelaire suggests the mood of the piece, with its the final distant horn-call. 'Les collines d'Anacapri' (The hills of Anacapri) is allusive in its depiction, while 'Des pas sur la neige' (Footprints on the snow) offers a cold, snow-covered landscape, suggested by the recurrent rhythmic figure, which, as the composer directs, should be the musical equivalent of a sad and frozen countryside, an image that, in language at least, must suggest Verlaine's 'Dans le vieu parc, solitaire et glace / Deux formes ont tout ?á I'heure passe' (In the old park, lonely and frozen, two forms have just passed), the last of the F?¬tes galantes that Debussy had set on various earlier occasions.
The mood changes with the stormy 'Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest' (What the west wind has seen), followed by the gently expressive portrait of 'La fille aux cheveux de lin' (The girl with flaxen hair), one of the most familiar of the Preludes, variously transcribed. 'La serenade interrompue' (The interrupted serenade) opens with a passage suggesting the preparation of the guitar for playing, an introduction to what follows, with rapidly repeated notes evoking the same instrument and the country with which it is generally associated. 'La cathedrale engloutie' (The submerged Cathedral) returns to medieval France, with harmonies and modal writing derived from early organum, a device used at the opening of Pelleas. The textures evoke through the sea-mist the mystery of the ancient cathedral of Ys, its chant and the sound of its bells, drowned now beneath the waves that have engulfed it long since, according to legend. A mood of a very different kind is embodied in 'La danse de Puck' (Puck's dance), capricious and light-footed, presumably inspired by the Robin Goodfellow of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream rather than Kipling's creation, although it seemed that Debussy was also familiar with the latter. The first book ends with 'Minstrels', inspired, it has been said, by a black street-band that Debussy had heard in Eastbourne in 1905.
It seems that Debussy was determined to complete two books of twelve Preludes each. He seems to have regarded these as of uneven quality, a judgement in which others have concurred, and was apparently not happy to have them played one after the other. Nevertheless these pieces do make two effective and coherent wholes, whatever the composer's original intentions, with the heart of each book at its very centre. The second set opens with 'Brouillards' (Mists), in which some have seen the counterpart of paintings by Whistler or even by Turner. 'Feuilles mortes' (Dead leaves) is marked lent et melancolique (slow and melancholy) and is autumnal in its colours. The atmosphere is at once lightened by 'La Puerta del Vino' (The Wine Ga