Official release: June 2021
If anyone reading this is new to Debussy’s Preludes, I would ask them to stop at the end of this paragraph, then listen once through, without reference to the “titles”, maybe noting after each piece the impression it makes on them. For the “titles” are not really titles at all. Debussy was torn all his life between “abstract” music and “descriptive” music. His first mature piano work, “Pour le Piano”, had purely musical titles – “Prélude”, “Sarabande” and “Toccata”. Next came three sets, “Estampes”, and “Images” I and II, with descriptive titles such as “Pagodes”, “Reflets dans l’eau”. His last major work for piano was a series of “Etudes” with titles that are purely technical descriptions of the problem each one poses – “Pour les tierces”, “Pour les quartes” and so on. In between, came perhaps his greatest single achievement for piano, the two books of “Préludes”. Here we have an in-between situation. There are no titles, but at the end of each piece he writes a word or phrase suggesting what the music might have expressed. Unfortunately, when you have heard the pieces and read these “after-titles”, they become as real titles, because you already know them before the music starts. For this reason, I ask anyone in the happy position of not already knowing either the music or the titles, to allow themselves the possibility, just once, of doing what Debussy apparently intended – listening “blind”, then at the end of each one, suggesting for themselves an “after-title”. Those who already know the “titles” might make an attempt to clear their minds, and ask themselves what the music suggests to them. If your “title” is different from Debussy’s, this is presumably legitimate. What follows is not a musicological analysis of the Préludes – there are plenty around you need them – but a few casual musings on aspects that particularly struck me as I was preparing this recording.
Titles that are not titles
Some of the “after-titles” prove entirely logical – one might have guessed that Book 2 no.3, with its habanera rhythms, is about Spain, or that Book 1 no.11 and Book 2 no.4 are about fairies. You might not have guessed the names of General Lavine (who was actually a circus performer) or S. Pickwick, but you could guess that crazy people are portrayed, and the quotation from the British National Anthem will have told you that the eccentric of the latter piece was an Englishman. Other “after-titles” can seem evasive or enigmatic. “Voiles”, for example, can mean both “Sails” and “Veils”. Cortot thought it meant the former and penned an enticing picture of a harbour by night, but the music could equally well describe the opening and closing of veils under a slight breeze. “Ondine” may be a little wave or a water-sprite. “La Terrasse des audiences au Clair de Lune” has attracted much comment. The phrase has been traced to a book about India, but what does it mean? English-speakers can be misled by the word “audiences”, for in French the word does not usually mean a mass of people – that is a “public”. Kings hold audiences, even on terraces. Perhaps this is not the “terrace of audiences”, but the “audience terrace”, where the king, or the Maharajah, holds his audiences. As it is night, the terrace is empty, open to the play of moonlight and shadows. Another after-title that might puzzle non-musicians is “Les tierces alternées” – “Alternating thirds”, a purely technical description. Yet its persistent grey patterings make it one of the most evocative of all. My guess for an after-title would be the beginning of Verlaine’s poem “Il pleure dans mon cœur / Comme il pleut sur la ville”.
Many of the after-titles seem intended to distance the music from the listener’s own times. “Danseuses de Delphes” and “Canopes” evoke Ancient Greece. “La Cathédrale engloutie” refers to an old French legend of the sunken cathedral of Ys which rises from the sea on clear days. “La Fille aux cheveux de lin”, based on a poem by Leconte de Lisle, harks back to an old Scottish story. Whatever the “Terrace des audiences” really is, it conjures up an oriental civilization that must have seemed very remote in Debussy’s own times.
Epic reach and vast silences
It may seem strange to speak of epic reach or vastness when the longest piece lasts less than six minutes. Yet the listener who has followed Debussy as “La Cathédrale engloutie” and “La Terrace des audiences” arise from nothing, reach great climaxes and then fall back to nothing, or as he unleashes the untamed ocean in “Ce qu’a vu le vent oust”, will have gone through a wrenching, even emotionally draining, experience extending far beyond the space of the few minutes it takes to play them. Even gentler pieces such as “Danseuses de Delphes”, “Voiles” or “Le sons et les parfums” hint at inner turmoil before concluding in serenity. Slow, still pieces such as “Des pas sur la neige” and “Canopes” open up vast worlds beyond any visible horizon.
In his inhabiting of great empty spaces, Debussy has far closer affinity with his contemporary Sibelius than is often allowed.
For his spaces, if populated at all, seem occupied by a single person. “La fille aux cheveux de lin”, for all her grace, is alone on a Scottish moor that finds its counterpart in the empty heath – “Bruyères” – of Book II. The “Terrace des audiences” is, I believe, empty under the blanching moonlight. “Ondine”, if indeed a water sprite, cavorts alone amid a sometimes harsh ocean. Puck, the life and soul of the party in Shakespeare’s play, dances alone here.
At least a clue to how Debussy obtains this feeling of remoteness and vastness can be found by studying his bass lines.
Most people know that Debussy failed his harmony exams at the Conservatoire and not even the least radical piece here, “La Fille aux cheveux de lin”, would pass as traditional harmony. But what does traditional harmony teach us? That the first thing a composer must do, after imagining his melody, is to find a good bass line. The filling in – which baroque composers often left to the performers – can be managed reasonably easily if the basic structure is sound.
In an extreme case, “Voiles”, Debussy has a single note sounding in the bass from the fifth bar till the last but one. Older composers sometimes used this “drone bass” for piquant effect, to evoke bagpipes or the like. The upper harmonies were allowed to create dissonances with the bass note, but within limits.
In “Voiles”, while the bass continues to resonate its low B flat, the two hands operate like two separate, enigmatic entities, or like two icebergs floating in and out of view in a mysterious, dark ocean, sometimes moving in the same direction, sometimes colliding before turning and drifting away once more. We sense there is a logical relation between the superimposed events, but it is not a relation that can be explained by any hitherto known harmonic rule.
Sometimes a simple movement of the bass line can be eruptive. For its first 43 bars, “La puerta del Vino” engages over a sultry, rocking habanera rhythm, oscillating between D flat and A flat. When it suddenly slips down to B flat and F, the result is psychologically disturbing in a way that a picture postcard of the Wine Gate in Granada would not be.
In “Les sons et le parfums”, the low A underpinning the opening and closing sections shifts in the central part, as though the music has lost its anchorage and is vainly seeking a new one.
In “La Terrasse des audiences”, the bass constantly moves, but it does not shape the direction of the music as it would have with an earlier composer. Rather, it expands the case of “Voiles”. Here we have three mysterious entities adrift, apparently unrelated even when they move in the same direction.
Humour and quotations
If this last paragraph has been too technical for some, let me come to earth by pointing out that Debussy’s vast and lonely universe had its alter ego, for he could sometimes indulge in slapstick humour. The hills of Anacapri may be gently atmospheric, but from the town below we hear snatches of a tarantella and music hall tunes, brazen and sleazy by turn. The hapless lover of “Sérénade interrompue” never gets his guitar in tune and seemingly collects a volley of pots and pans from the beloved before he calls it a day. The coloured minstrels of Montmartre are affectionately drawn, but General Ed La Vine, acrobat extraordinary, and M. Pickwick, a patriotic Englishman with a secret inner life, are caustically portrayed.
M. Pickwick makes sardonic reference to “God Save the King”, but Debussy’s quotations from other music are not always humorous. At the end of “Feux d’artifice”, a strain of the “Marseilleise” is heard as the fireworks recede into the distance. “Les Fées sont d’esquises danseuses” signs off with the magic horn call from Weber’s “Oberon”. Enigmatically, “Les Terraces des audiences” begins with a snatch of “Au clair de la lune”, though only Debussy, or perhaps Erik Satie, could have explained what this traditional French tune was doing in India.
Do as Debussy says or as Debussy did?
“La Cathédrale engloutie” presents a famous riddle. If you begin “Profondément calme” as indicated, when you reach the passage marked “Doux e fluide”, only 7 bars later, the music becomes so slow that it hardly makes sense. So, if you are to maintain a constant tempo, you have to start faster than seems desirable. The same problem reoccurs several times during the piece. Debussy himself, in a piano roll, simply doubles the tempo at these points. The pulse remains the same, with the new half notes equalling the old quarter notes. So did Debussy make a mistake in his notation, thinking one thing but writing another? I believe he must have done so and I play accordingly.
Pièce pour l’oeuvre du “Vêtement du blesse”
This “postscript” was Debussy’s donation to a charity fund for the war wounded in 1915. It is a poignant little waltz, recalling the atmosphere of “La plus que lente”.
Christopher Howell © 2021
Christopher Howell: He was born in London. After picking up a few rudiments from his grandfather, a piano tuner whose father had published a couple of marches in his youth, he had his first piano lessons from the resident teacher of the Caldecott Community, Betty Rayment. He conducted a composition of his own at the age of 14 and gave his first piano recital before leaving school. He also played the organ in the school chapel and has maintained an interest in the organ. Subsequent teachers included two professors of the Royal Academy of Music, Alexander Kelly and Else Cross. He obtained the L.R.A.M. and a B.Mus. with honours at Edinburgh University, where he studied piano with Colin Kingsley and composition with Kenneth Leighton and Edward Harper. In this period he appeared as soloist and chamber musician and formed and directed a small choir. He won a scholarship to complete his piano studies in Milan with Ilonka Deckers-Küszler and gave recitals in Italy and the UK. He has also appeared in Germany (Munich) and France (Nice). In 1993 he recorded a CD of piano music by Cyril Scott. He later recorded a CD of music by Harold Craxton and, with the cellist Alison Moncrieff Kelly, the cello sonatas of C.V. Stanford on Meridian. His compositions have been performed in Milan, Magenta, Turin and Munich. In 2009, at the Spazio Tadini, he collaborated in a homage to Gianandrea Gavazzeni, in which works for voice and piano by the maestro were interpreted by Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni.
Christopher Howell has recorded extensively for Sheva Collection including, with the leading Italian violinist Alberto Bologni, the complete music for violin and piano by C.V. Stanford. His recording of the complete works for solo piano by Stanford, in three double-CD volumes, has been widely acclaimed. His recording of the complete works for solo piano by Mackenzie, on three single-CD albums, has recently been issued, as has a CD containing five sonatas by Haydn.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.