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No 01: Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave
No 02: Voiles: Modéré
No 03: Le vent dans la plaine: Animé
No 04: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir: Modéré
No 05: Les collines d'Anacapri: Trčs modéré
No 06: Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent
No 07: Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest: Animé et tumultueux
No 08: La fille aux cheveux de lin: Trčs calme et doucement expressif
No 09: La sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé
No 10: La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme
No 11: La danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger
No 12: Minstrels: Modéré
Voiles has variously been translated as ‘veils’ or ‘sails’. According to the composer’s widow in 1924, the latter is correct. Here Debussy contrasts two of his favourite ‘non-academic’ scales, in the sense that they did not normally find their way into the French textbooks of the time: two passages of whole-tone harmony enclose six bars of pentatonicism. No semitones anywhere.
The complete line from which the title of the third piece comes is ‘Le vent dans la plaine suspend son haleine’ (‘The wind in the plain holds its breath’), and Debussy depicts this with sudden withdrawals of material, leaving just a murmured background of semiquavers. The three sudden explosions in the middle of the piece are all the more striking. The fourth piece was also inspired by a line of poetry, from Baudelaire’s Harmonie du soir, which Debussy had set as a song in 1889. Here the musical material is infused with the interval of a fourth, first rising, then falling, and a floating atmosphere is engendered by fluctuating bar lengths of 5/4 and 3/4. The sounds and scents finally evaporate to the sound of distant horns.
Of Les collines d’Anacapri Mme Debussy is reported as saying simply ‘souvenir de Rome’. This may then date from Debussy’s time at the Villa Medici in the 1880s, though the island of Capri lies 200 kilometers to the south; he did not see Rome again until 1914. Whatever the source, this piece introduces the ‘vulgar’ element into the Préludes—a series of popular songs building to a triumphant, lumineux conclusion.
With Des pas sur la neige we pass from the real to the imaginary. The stabbing iambic rhythms give the illusion of destroying movement, almost of destroying time. Above them, legato phrases try to gain a foothold, but can never lift the music louder than piano, although one phrase does bid fair to expand (from 2'24), marked expressif et tendre. But when it returns (at 3'09) it is marked comme un tendre et triste regret. This is a scene of physical and spiritual desolation from which Debussy offers no hope of escape, as symbolized by the hollow final chord with a gap of almost four octaves between the hands.
The seventh prelude paints a picture of violence rare in Debussy’s music, with instructions such as strident, angoissé, incisif and furieux. This is no longer Impressionism (if indeed Debussy ever dealt in such a thing) but Expressionism, composed a year before Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and two years before Prokofiev’s Toccata. The title, Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, is taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Garden of Paradise but, as there is no hint of violence in this story, a parallel source might be Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which Debussy had read in a French translation. It would be hard to find a better description of the piece than Shelley’s ‘the tumult of thy mighty harmonies’.
Mme Debussy duly noted that La fille aux cheveux de lin referred to a poem by Leconte de Lisle. But she went on to say that ‘there is something else more definite, more real, far less literary that I can’t commit to paper’. And she ends by saying to her interlocutor: ‘This is just between the two of us.’ A disengaged, invertebrate performance of the piece would therefore seem to be wide of the mark—and in any case we find in the original poem the lines ‘I want to kiss your flaxen hair/And press the purple of your lips’.
The next two preludes show two ways in which Debussy tried to escape the often burdensome realities of early twentieth-century Paris. In La sérénade interrompue he takes us abroad, to Spain, a land not only of guitars but of dual, simultaneous streams of thought. What exactly is the meaning of the two ‘um-chah’ interruptions (at 1'29 and 1'39), borrowed from Debussy’s own orchestral piece Ibéria? Are they jealous? Sneering? Debunking? Or just matter-of-factly uninvolved? We are left to make up our own minds. La cathédrale engloutie on the other hand conjures up the very precise image of the cathedral of Ys drowned by flood waters, as related in Breton legend. An opera on the subject, Le roi d’Ys, by Édouard Lalo, a composer Debussy admired, had been premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in May 1888 and was given a hundred performances there in just over a year. Debussy must have seen it, and no doubt appreciated what Steven Huebner has called ‘Lalo’s pungent harmonic vocabulary and general avoidance of “filler” […] and Lalo’s image as a solitary traveller’. Add to that the chance to depict cathedral bells sounding through water, and it is not hard to see the attraction.
The two final preludes of Book I are more light-hearted. Puck is Shakespeare’s elf, in all likelihood found by Debussy, as Roy Howat has suggested, in an edition of 1908 with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Puck’s aerial acrobatics are first interrupted by and then blended with trumpet and horn calls. The minstrels of the last piece had performed on the promenade in front of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, where Debussy and his second wife spent part of the summer of 1905. The ‘vulgar’ elements are treated by Debussy in various sophisticated ways, including sudden jumps between keys and (at 0'54) a ‘mocking’ passage based on whole-tone chords. Both of these last two pieces were encored when Debussy premiered them.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2006