Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Debussy - Preludes For Piano Book One

Claude Debussy has been identified with Impressionism, exemplified by the paintings of Renoir and Monet among others. Debussy himself disliked the term and rejected any association with it. As he said himself:
I am trying to do 'something different'...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics. 
Some have suggested he was a proponent of Symbolism more than Impressionism, but  'isms' are but created labels that attempt to categorize. Not that these labels aren't useful. They certainly can give a sense of structure for study and understanding. But labels are models to aid in understanding. As soon as a model is used as a definite mold to force art to  conform to specific rules, the model loses its value.

Debussy's talent was such that he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire when he was ten years old. During his 11 years there he constantly challenged his teachers and the directorship of Ambroise Thomas, a musical conservative.  He earned the praise and admiration of his teachers and fellow students for his abilities as a pianist and sight-reader, but his compositions were not understood. He understood the models of music that were taught in his classes, but he refused to allow his creativity to be controlled by them.

That is not to say that he was not influenced by other composers. Richard Wagner was a profound influence, as well as Mussorgsky. Older music also had an influence, such as the Baroque clavicenists such as Couperin as well as J.S. Bach. Each one of these influences were digested and internalized by Debussy's talent and transformed into his own highly original music. American Ragtime, the Gamelan from Java all played a part as well as literature and the visual arts.

Debussy was a slow and meticulous composer, but uncharacteristically the Preludes Book One was begun in late 1909 and finished three months later.  He kept with the traditional number of preludes of 24 (in two books of 12) as set by many composers before him, especially J.S. Bach and Chopin. But where Bach had his preludes (and the fugues that went with them) follow each other in a half-step progression of keys and Chopin followed the circle of fifths, Debussy's preludes follow no set key sequence, although groups of them seem to be tonally related.  Debussy doesn't use conventional keys hardly at all as he uses church modes, pentatonic scales and the whole tone scale in writing them.

Another unique feature of Debussy's preludes is that while each one is titled, the title appears at the end of the piece instead of the beginning.

1)  Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) -  Debussy begins with music inspired by ancient Greek dancers in music that gently moves through different types of scales and melodies.  This first prelude gives a clue to what will proceed, and renders what Debussy himself said is his musical objective:

Wagner pronounced himself in favor of the laws of harmony. I am for freedom. But freedom must essentially be free. All the noises we hear around ourselves can be re-created. Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people wish to conform to the rules; for myself, I wish only to render what I can hear.
2)  Voiles (Veils or Sails) - The title of this prelude is ambiguous, quite appropriate for the music. Either the sails of ships billowing in a breeze, or the sensuous form of a woman only partially hidden by diaphanous veils. The whole tone scale is used throughout with the chromatic scale added for variety.

3)  Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain) -  A depiction of strong as well as gentle breezes. There is no documentation as to whether Debussy intended the preludes to be played as an entire set. Shortly after their composition, Debussy himself as well as other pianists played them in groups of three.  The first three preludes sound well together played this way.

4)  Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) - The title is inspired by a poem by Charles Beaudelaire titled Harmonie Soir (Evening Harmony).  This preludes ends with a short coda that is marked by the composer 'as a far away horn call'.

5)  Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri) - Anacapri is a small village on the Isle of Capri in the Gulf of Naples off the Italian coast. Debussy begins the prelude slowly until it erupts in an Italian dance, the tarantella. The dance is interrupted by a folk song like melody in the middle section. The dance returns and leads to a glittering ending in the extreme treble of the keyboard which is marked lumineux (luminous).

6)  Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow) - A bleak landscape of snow and cold is represented as a persistent motive is repeated.  Debussy gives the direction that 'the tempo must be such that it sounds like a sad, icy landscape'.  There is little relief from the cold atmosphere in this prelude that is a challenge for the pianist to bring off with Debussy's intended effect.

7)  Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (What the west wind has seen) -  The subtle colors of the preceeding preludes are swept away by this depiction of a violent wind that roars off the coast of France during a storm at sea.

8)  La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) - One of the most often played preludes, this gentle music is in stark contrast to the preceding violent one. Gentle chords surround Debussy's original melody that sounds like a folk song.

9)  La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) - Debussy continues the French love of Spanish music in this prelude that depicts a Spanish guitarist that tries to serenade his sweetheart. Is the father the one that slams the window to shut out the serenade, or the beloved? No matter, the serenader finally gives up and wanders off.

10) La Cathédrale engloutie (The engulfed cathedral) - Another of the most popular preludes, this is a representation of the legend of the cathedral of the ancient city of Ys in Brittany that sank to the bottom of the ocean when the city was swallowed by the sea. Once every hundred years the cathedral rises out of the ocean to the tolling of its bells and the chanting of monks. It then sinks back into the sea.  With thunderous chords in the middle section, Debussy has the piano do a credible impression of pipe organ sonority. Widely-spaced chords (including six-note chords to be played by the five fingers of the right hand) add to the mysterious nature of the legend before the cathedral slips back under the water.

11) La danse de Puck (Puck's dance) - A representation of the mischievous Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

12) Minstrels - Traveling minstrel shows appeared in Europe around the turn of the 20th century and were very popular. European composers were influenced by ragtime and early jazz music. Debussy's creative imagination attracted him to different kinds of music and art, and led to this witty representation of the banjo and minstrel music.

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