Préludes, by Claude Debussy

May 12, 2014

The tracks included here are drawn from a live recital recording of the complete Préludes. Although selecting representative works from the two books proved difficult, I have endeavored to show in microcosm the full scope of Debussy’s sounds, characters, and overall artistic vision. As Debussy himself programmed the Préludes in smaller groupings, and complete presentations of both books were not heard until after his death, my selection of five of these works is intended to remain true to the spirit of early performances.

Recording Date:  March 21, 2011
Recording Location: University of South Carolina, School of Music Recital Hall
Duration: 0:18:09
Performers: Terry Lynn Hudson

About the Music

Composer: Claude Debussy
Instrumentation: Piano
Date Composed: 1909-1913

The two volumes of Préludes by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) present a clear view of his evolution as a composer for the piano. The Préludes are fairly late in his output, with Book I completed in 1910 and Book II in 1913; by this stage he had progressed beyond those early works that obviously referenced the past (Ballade, Pour le Piano) and had created some of the masterpieces indicative of his mature style (such as the two sets of Images). In the Préludes, we observe a sophisticated and inventive harmonic palette, a suppleness of rhythm that belies the intricacy and structure involved, and great ease and effectiveness in writing for the instrument. Furthermore, Debussy drew inspiration from an extensive array of sources–visual art, folk and popular styles, poetry and legends, the exotic, the childlike, nature, and the list continues–evoking an impressive range of extramusical associations and images in these 24 compact and colorful pieces.

In just these five examples from the two volumes of Préludes, the composer takes us on a journey through isolation, mysticism, whimsy, humor, and virtuosity in a most imaginative fashion. Such is the genius of Debussy!

Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow, Book I)
Debussy’s rendering of nature in this work is one of starkness and desolation, with its opening interpretive indication speaking of “a bleak, frozen landscape.” The musical depiction of hesitant, trudging footsteps is obvious in the piece’s ostinato, and we can feel the vast emptiness in the open harmonies and the spare texture.

La cathédrale engloutie (The engulfed cathedral, Book I)
This prelude is inspired by the legend of the submerged Breton city of Ys, in which its cathedral rises from the sea to its former grandeur at sunrise, then gradually sinks back into the ocean. Debussy provides vivid representations of both the narrative (for instance, the cathedral is first enveloped by a veil of misty harmonies, then moves slowly upward through gently undulating and eventually intensifying waves) and the descriptive (such as church bells, chant, and a sense of space and splendor at the dramatic climax).

“Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (“The fairies are exquisite dancers,” Book II)
Here we note one of the few prelude titles using quotation marks, as it references the caption to an Arthur Rackham illustration in the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie. This artwork depicts a delicate fairy dancing on a cobweb, and the lightness of figuration and flightiness of character in the piece communicate this beautifully.

“General Lavine”–excentric (“General Lavine”–eccentric, Book II)
General Lavine refers to an actual person: Edward Lavine, an American vaudeville performer who also made appearances in France. A clown of sorts, he dressed as an odd hybrid of a tramp and a soldier. Debussy designates the piece as a cakewalk, and here we find comically literal references such as a bugle call, a blaring trombone, marching, juggling, and even a sly musical allusion to Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Slapstick is intended and conveyed convincingly.

Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds, Book II)
This prelude is the only of the set that lacks a descriptive title, and is viewed as a precursor to his Douze études of 1915. One expects another character piece upon hearing the languid introduction, but Debussy instead presents a technical (albeit still colorful) showpiece of great difficulty. The creativity with which he develops the simple thirds and incorporates them into varying musical contexts allows this prelude to fit perfectly with the others, despite its etude-like nature.

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