No 01: Brouillards: Modéré
No 02: Feuilles mortes: Lent et mélancolique
No 03: La Puerta del Vino: Mouvement de Habanera
No 04: Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses: Rapide et léger
No 05: Bruyères: Calme
No 06: General Lavine, excentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cake-Walk
No 07: La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent
No 08: Ondine: Scherzando
No 09: Hommage à S Pickwick Esq PPMPC: Grave
No 10: Canope: Très calme et doucement triste
No 11: Les tierces alternées: Modérément animé
No 12: Feux d'artifice: Modérément animé
In Brouillards, the fog is depicted by the simultaneous use of white-note and black-note patterns—making grey. As in Des pas sur la neige, melodic fragments break through the murk from time to time, but the piece ends on a complex unresolved dissonance, the only one of the Préludes to do so. The contrast in Feuilles mortes is largely between sensuous chords and tortuous, chromatic lines in octaves. Mme Debussy said her husband wrote the piece ‘after an autumn walk’. Perhaps the trumpet calls (beginning at 1'28) came from a brass band in the distance.
In general Debussy is careful to set consecutive pieces in different keys. In the two places where he breaks this rule—between Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest and La fille aux cheveux de lin (in F sharp major and G flat major), and here between Feuilles mortes and La Puerta del Vino (in C sharp major and D flat major)—the identity of keys only underlines the sharp differences in atmosphere. A dreamy C sharp now becomes a vibrant, brightly lit D flat in Book II’s counterpart to La sérénade interrompue. La Puerta del Vino was inspired by a postcard of the Moorish ‘Gate of Wine’ by the Alhambra in Granada. Once again, Spaniards are heard to be following two streams of thought simultaneously, leading to sudden explosions in the midst of quiet, contemplative passages. The two-note drum pattern, heard from the third bar, stays anchored on a low D flat for almost half the piece until (at 1'39) it suddenly swoops down to a B flat; did Ravel remember this when writing Boléro fifteen years later? Finally the D flat returns and resists increasingly half-hearted attempts to dislodge it.
Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses also had a printed visual source, namely Arthur Rackham’s illustration to Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1907 and given to Debussy’s daughter Chouchou as a Christmas present in 1912. Rackham’s drawing centres around a spider’s web, and Debussy’s music likewise is seemingly insubstantial but strongly constructed. Amid the fairies’ quicksilver antics they find time in the central section to indulge in a waltz.
Bruyères returns to the style of La fille aux cheveux de lin and may well be the earliest piece of Book II. Mme Debussy describes it as a ‘visual evocation of the simple flowers’ of heather. «General Lavine»—excentric also looks back, to Minstrels, and was similarly inspired by a popular manifestation, the American clown Ed Lavine who appeared at the Marigny Theatre in 1910 and 1912 and was billed as ‘the man who has soldiered all his life’. His act included juggling on a tightrope and, according to some, playing the piano with his toes, an activity possibly mirrored in the low-lying main tune.
With La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune we return to the atmospheric world of the Images. The inspiration here was an article in the newspaper Le temps in December 1912 describing the durbar at which George V was crowned Emperor of India. Words are inadequate for the sheer sensuous beauty of this piece, one of Debussy’s major pianistic miracles. There is magic too, if on a less majestic level, in Ondine. This again may have been inspired by Rackham’s illustrations for De La Motte Fouqué’s Undine which appeared in 1912. But it must also surely be heard as a riposte to Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ from Gaspard de la nuit, published in 1909. Maybe Debussy, who distrusted prolixity and technical brilliance, was saying: ‘I can do just as good a water nymph as you in fewer notes.’
The next two preludes take us abroad for the last time. Debussy rather admired English sangfroid (again, those were the days …), but was not beyond giving it the occasional dig in the ribs, as here in his quotation of ‘God Save the King’. His reading of Dickens would have been in French, and in the process Mr Pickwick’s suffix underwent slight alteration: ‘P.P.M.P.C.’ is said to have stood for ‘Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club’. Canope, in contrast, is one of Debussy’s ‘timeless’ pieces, inspired by the ‘Canopic’ jar tops of Egyptian funerary urns, two of which stood on Debussy’s mantelpiece.
Book II ends with a final joke and then a return home. As the title of each piece comes at the end (… in brackets and preceded by three dots), Debussy may be teasing us in the twenty-third prelude by asking us to guess the title. ‘Bustling crowds on the Boulevard des Italiens’? ‘The little train’? No; simply Les tierces alternées: ‘alternating thirds’. Which they do without respite. Feux d’artifice brings us back to real life and to Paris. As Robert Schmitz reminds us: ‘There is a well-established custom which prescribes that the last display shot off in a fireworks exhibit (le bouquet) should be the richest, most varied, most powerful one of the evening […] Few are the connoisseurs who do not find a place on one of the many bridges over the Seine River on the evening of 14 July to witness sky and earth joined in this fiery interplay of pyrotechnics and reflections.’ And as snatches of the Marseillaise fade into the distance, Debussy leaves us to ponder happily over all the marvels we have heard, and seen in our mind’s eye.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2006