Sakura Salon 3/23/14 – Claude Debussy piano music

Claude Debussy is generally considered the dominant figure in the transition from the late romantic style to that of the twentieth century. Born in St. Germain de Fleurville, France in 1862, Debussy studied at the famous Paris Conservatory from the age of ten to twenty-two and awarded the Prix de Rome in 1884.

Debussy’s principal influences included the music of Russia, the exotic colors of Asian music (which he first heard at the Paris International Exposition in 1889), and the ideas of writers and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire. Following the production of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 and the completion of his popular orchestral work La Mer (The Sea) (1905) Debussy was soon recognized as a leading composer of early twentieth-century.

Due to certain aspects of Debussy’s style, his music is usually classified as a musical counterpart to the artistic movement known as impressionism. Like the paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Debussy’s music (and musical impressionism in general) conveys a feeling of vagueness rather than sharply defined articulation. For example, the exotic tone colors, sensuous harmonies, imperceptible metrical pulse, and tonal ambiguity–all characteristics of Debussy’s style–seem to accurately reflect the spirit of ethereal paintings like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise(1874).

In Debussy’s music, clearly delineated harmonic progressions, melodies, and rhythms are purposely avoided to evoke mood and atmosphere rather than concrete images. In the work entitled La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), Debussy utilizes a compositional device known as parallel chords (or planing) to dilute the sense of directed motion found in traditional progressions. It should be noted that it it took a while for the critics and the listening public to warm up to this new and bold experiment in harmonic freedom.

The colorful harmonies suggests Debussy was guided simply by that which he found pleasing to the ear rather than some “rule” of traditional harmonic practice. In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Debussy was fond of unusual scale patterns. Medieval church modes and numerous scales from the orient were used extensively. One such scale is the pentatonic scale. As implied by the name, this scale utilizes a total of five notes (e.g., corresponding to the black keys of the piano keyboard) rather than the traditional eight.  The whole-tone scale is another frequently encountered scale pattern in the music of Debussy. This scale consists of six different notes with no intervening half-steps.



Written in 1890, Debussy’s Reverie was one of his first solo piano works to make an impact. Even at this early stage in his career, it’s clear to see traits of that signature Debussy sound.

However, the young Debussy had not quite developed the style that would earmark him as one of his generation’s most notable talents. There are no fireworks here, no sudden explosions in texture that would come to characterize his later works – this is more of a meditation, the perfect precursor to exploring those later works.

The gently repetitive theme that opens the work feels like a descent into sleepy dream-world (as the title suggests), and as the textures become ever richer the dreams only become more lush and addictive


Various Preludes

Claude Debussy composed his two books of Préludes between late 1909 and early 1913. Each book contains 12 Preludes. A novelty about these Préludes is that the titles are not printed as a header above the first page, but as a footer on the last page, almost like an afterthought, suggesting that the title is inspired by the music and not the other way around. Here follows a description of some of the items recorded here.

La Puerto del Vino (The Gate of Wine) describes the Spanish life and the passionate temperament of the Spanish people that Debussy had imagined, based on a postcard he had received of the Moorish gate by the Alhambra Palace in Granada. A habanera rhythm is often heard in the left hand while the right hand imitates flamenco-style singing and guitar.

Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers) was inspired by one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in J.M. Barrie’s children’s book, “Peter Pan in Kensington Garden”. Robert Godet had sent the book to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (nicknamed “Chouchou”) as a Christmas present in 1912.

 Ondine is a wicked water nymph who seduces innocent fishermen into the destructive waters of the sea. (Near Sakura?)   Although her outward appearance is beautiful, her hidden intentions are deadly.

 Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) was inspired by the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th. A hint of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, is heard near the end of the piece.

 Les Collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) depicts life in the small city of Anacapri, on the Island of Capri off the Italian mainland, which is famous for its joyous folksongs and folkdances.

La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace for Moonlight Audiences) is based on a description of the coronation festivities of George the V as Emperor of India that Debussy had read in the December 1912 edition of “Le Temps” magazine. The article had been submitted by Rene Puaux as part of his “Lettres des Indes” series.

 La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) belongs to the lost city of Y’s that has sunken to the bottom of the sea as a punishment. It emerges for a brief moment each morning to remind the people of their sins, but then slowly resubmerges. The cathedral bells and monks’ chants may be heard through the mist of dawn.

Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow) portrays a frozen landscape in the dead of winter.

Bruyeres (Heather) is a low-growing mauve flower. One can hear birds calling or the sounds of a shepherd’s flute a distance from the heather field.

 La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) paints a serene picture of the Scottish maiden with hair of gold from Leconte de Lisle’s poem.

 Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Evening Air) is based on a line of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, “Harmonie du soir”.

General Lavine Eccentric has indeed been described as “eccentric,” which is as apt a description as any I suppose. What “General Lavine” really reminds me of though is some of the music that Thelonious Monk would compose 40 years later.


Suite Bergamasque

The creation of this set of four pieces remains shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. In 1890, when Debussy was 28 and virtually unknown, he composed four brief pieces for piano but did not publish them. He came back to this music fifteen years later, in 1905. By this time, Debussy had become famous (or infamous): in the intervening years he had composed Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the String Quartet, Pelléas et Mélisande , and La mer. Now he composed two new piano pieces, L’isle joyeuse and Masques, and intended to publish them along with the four pieces from 1890, but eventually he thought better of this plan. He published the new pieces separately, and he revised the earlier set and published it in 1905 under the title Suite Bergamasque. How much of this music is the work of an unknown music student in Paris and how much of it is the work the established and sophisticated composer he had become by 1905? No one is sure.

The title is just as elusive. Bergamasque in one sense refers to something old or antique, but Bergamo is also the traditional home of Harlequin of the commedia dell’arte, a dramatic form to which Debussy was much drawn. In his Suite Bergamasque, Debussy set out consciously to evoke the keyboard music of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and three of the movements of Suite Bergamasque are in forms that come directly from that music.


Suite Bergamasque I. Prelude

The opening Prélude springs to life with a great flourish and then often has an improvisatory air, as if the pianist might be making it up on the spot. It contrasts a flowing, elegant opening idea with a quiet and falling second subject, and Debussy drives the movement to a forceful close.

Suite Bergamasque II. Menuet

The Menuet is not in the minuet-and-trio form of Haydn and Mozart, nor does it even look back to the earlier French minuet. Instead, it evokes the graceful spirit of that formal dance form. Debussy’s marking is pianissimo et très délicatment, and its many grace-notes, triplets, and runs evoke the “archaic” sound of the clavecin or harpsichord.

 Suite Bergamasque III. Claire de Lune

The great exception in the Suite Bergamasque is its third movement, which does not look back to an earlier keyboard style. Clair de lune has become so familiar as an impressionistic portrait of moonlight that it is surprising to learn that in its earliest version this music had nothing to do with moonlight. In 1890 Debussy had originally titled this piece Promenade Sentimentale, and the music acquired its familiar name only when it was revised in 1905. This music fully deserves its popularity–no matter how over-familiar it may have become, Debussy’s fluid rhythms, haunting melodies, and delicate shading continue to work their hold on listeners (and pianists).

 Suite Bergamasque IV. Passepied

Debussy rounds off the suite with the Passepied, which was originally a sailors’ dance from Brittany (its title means “pass-foot”). In its original form, a passepied was in triple meter, but Debussy’s movement is in duple meter throughout. Beneath the crisp staccato of the left hand (which is heard in almost every measure), the right hand lays out two ideas: the sharp-edged opening theme and a more flowing second. For all its elegance, this movement is extremely difficult for the performer, and it ends beautifully, with a falling shimmer of eighth-notes that wink out on two final chords marked triple piano.