The story of Debussy’s Préludes (1909-13)

Gerald Larner explains how Debussy, by defying the rules of conventional harmony, transformed piano music’s landscape

Claude Debussy
Published: August 19, 2016 at 2:04 pm

‘I’m trying to write “something different”– realities in a way; imbeciles call it “impressionism” which is a term used as inappropriately as possible, particularly by art critics.’ It’s intriguing to speculate on why Debussy thought the word ‘impressionism’ particularly inappropriate for art critics. Does that mean that music critics are less imbecilic? On the face of it, this seems unlikely. If you look at a sheet of music it is, by necessity, absolutely precise. There is no blurring of line, no smudging, no clouding over detail, no vague shapes in the distance, none of the characteristics prominent in Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise which caused a shocked art critic to use the term as an expression of his disapproval of what he saw, or couldn’t quite see. And ‘symbolism’ is no better: Debussy considered both ‘impressionism’ and ‘symbolism’ terms of abuse.


The paradox is that Debussy succeeded – in a series of piano works starting with Estampes in 1903 and culminating in the two books of Préludes in 1910 and 1912 respectively – in creating what can only be called an ‘impressionist’ technique. He did much the same for the orchestra: ‘Nuages’ from the Nocturnes of 1900 is as magically suggestive of what he actually called ‘impressions and special effects of light’ as any painting by his favourite artists Turner or Whistler. But the even greater achievement was to do the same with ‘that box of hammers and strings.’

In so doing he added to the piano dimensions of expression scarcely touched on even by Liszt. This is not to deny that Liszt had much to do with the development of Debussy’s technique. He heard the master play in Rome and was impressed above all by his use of the sustaining pedal ‘as a form of breathing.’ Much of the secret in Debussy’s piano impressionism rested in his use of the pedals, in effect in the blurring of lines and the veiling of textures. In a similar spirit he insisted on playing the piano with the lid down ‘pour mieux noyer le son’, and drowning the sound is precisely what ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (Préludes Book I) is all about.

What Debussy was doing in the Préludes and earlier works with a similar inspiration was composing with sounds rather than notes. It is that, rather than their picturesque qualities, that changed history. Debussy did nothing less than liberate music from the domination by functional harmony which had prevailed for three centuries. Take ‘Voiles’ from Préludes Book I: whether it was intended to create an impression of ‘veils’ or ‘sails’ (the French title could refer to either) it does so by almost exclusive use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales. That doesn’t make it strictly atonal but it does set it free from the triad to float wherever the movement of the dancer or the wind on the water takes it. Of course, Debussy used triads in these works but usually in the intention of creating atmosphere while, by juxtaposing chords with no relationship between them, defying the rules of harmony. Tonality becomes colour.

The composer who benefited most from this liberation was Bartók, who was introduced to Debussy’s music by Kodály in 1907. Adopting the major piano works (including the Préludes), Bartók absorbed the liberated message as deeply as he absorbed the idiom of the Hungarian peasant. He was too good a composer to imitate Debussy, although there are a few examples of direct influence – it was Debussy’s music that saved him from remaining under the spell of Richard Strauss. Those that did try to imitate Debussy directly, on the other hand, proved to be not very interesting at all. In their case it was little more than a matter of combining the harmonic elements so wittily analysed by the music critic Willy: ‘bicarbonate of ninth chords on stepwise scale degrees, acetate of dissonances in chains of major thirds, traces of unresolved appoggiaturas…’

More interesting were the composers who adopted Debussy’s innovations and went some way to making them their own. John Ireland’s evocations of favourite places, particularly those written on the Channel Islands, could not have been written without Debussy’s example, but are nevertheless very personal. More interesting still are those who developed the innovations and took them into new areas: Szymanowski achieved something no French musician did, introducing impressionism into the violin-piano duo in the enchantingly colourful Myths.

Such examples are rare, however – partly for historical reasons, like the First World War and then the cordon sanitaire put up by Jean Cocteau who, as the propagandist behind Les Six, declared: ‘we’ve had enough clouds, waves aquariums, Ondines and perfumes of the night.’ By no means all of the next generation of French composer were put off: Messiaen analysed the Préludes in his famous classes and, in his very early days as a composer, wrote a set of Préludes himself. But after World War II the future was with Boulez, whose creative interest in Debussy was restricted largely to late works like the piano Etudes and the ballet Jeux, written after the great ‘impressionist’ had renounced impressionism.

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