Préludes (Debussy)

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Claude Debussy's Préludes are 24 pieces for solo piano, divided into two books of 12 preludes each. Unlike some notable collections of preludes from prior times, such as Chopin's Op. 28 preludes, or the preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy's do not follow a strict pattern of tonal centers.

Each book was written in a matter of months, at an unusually fast pace for Debussy. Book I was written between December 1909 and February 1910, and Book II between the last months of 1912 and early April 1913.


Book I Book II
1. Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave
(Dancers of Delphi)
1. Brouillards: Modéré
2. Voiles: Modéré
2. Feuilles mortes: Lent et mélancolique
(Dead Leaves)
3. Le vent dans la plaine: Animé
(The Wind in the Plain)
3. La puerta del Vino: Mouvement de Habanera
(Wine Gate)
4. «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir»: Modéré
("The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air")
4. «Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses»: Rapide et léger
("Fairies are exquisite dancers")
5. Les collines d'Anacapri: Très modéré
(The Hills of Anacapri)
5. Bruyères: Calme
(Heather/Town in Eastern France)
6. Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent
(Footsteps in the Snow)
6. Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk

7. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest: Animé et tumultueux
(What the West Wind Has Seen)
7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent
(The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences)
8. La fille aux cheveux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif
(The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)
8. Ondine: Scherzando
9. La sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé
(Interrupted Serenade)
9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.: Grave
(Homage to S. Pickwick)
10. La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme
(The engulfed Cathedral)
10. Canope: Très calme et doucement triste
(Canopic Jar)
11. La danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger
(Puck's Dance)
11. Les tierces alternées: Modérément animé
(Alternating Thirds)
12. Minstrels: Modéré 12. Feux d'artifice: Modérément animé

Two of the titles were set in quotation marks by Debussy because they are, in fact, quotations: «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» is from Charles Baudelaire's poem Harmonie du soir ("Evening Harmony"). «Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses» is from J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which Debussy's daughter had received as a gift.

Performance practice[edit]

On 3 May 1911, the pianist Jane Mortier (to whom works were dedicated by Bohuslav Martinů[1] and Erik Satie) premiered the entire first book of preludes at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.[2] The German-English pianist Walter Morse Rummel, a student of Leopold Godowsky, gave the premiere of the entire second book of preludes in 1913 in London.[2]

Initially, Debussy and other pianists who gave early performances of the works (including Ricardo Viñes) played them in groups of three or four preludes, which remains a popular approach today. This allows performers to choose preludes with which they have the strongest affinity, or those to which their individual interpretive gifts are most suited.

There is a strong tonal relationship between the preludes that suggests that the published order of the preludes is not arbitrary.[3] For example, the first three preludes in the first book (Danseuses de Delphes, Voiles, and Le Vent dans la Plaine) revolve around the key of B.[3] In these first three preludes, allusions to the key of B disappear and reappear, yet a strong sense of fluidity and connection between the preludes is still maintained.

However, the order of the preludes is not considered imperative, as is the case with Chopin's preludes, for example. Several pianists have performed the set out of order, and at least one recording, by Ivan Ilić, changes the order of the set entirely.[4]

The first complete recording of both sets was made in England in 1938 by the South African pianist Adolph Hallis.[5]

The titles[edit]

The titles of the preludes are highly significant, both in terms of their descriptive quality and in the way they were placed in the written score. The titles are written at the end of each work,[6] allowing the performer to experience each individual sound world without being influenced by Debussy's titles beforehand.

At least one of the titles is poetically vague: the exact meaning of Voiles, the title of the second prelude of the first book, is impossible to determine for certain, since plural nouns do not distinguish genders as the singular forms may do (in French, voiles can mean either "veils" or "sails").[7]

The title of the fourth prelude «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» represents a citation from Charles Baudelaire’s poem Harmonie du soir from his volume of poems Les Fleurs du mal.[8]

Orchestrations and adaptations[edit]

Numerous orchestrations have been made of the various preludes, mostly of La fille aux cheveux de lin and La cathédrale engloutie. Complete orchestrations of all 24 preludes include versions by Pavica Gvozdić, Peter Breiner, Luc Brewaeys, Hans Henkemans and Colin Matthews.[9][10][11][12] Sean Osborn and conductor Noam Zur have orchestrated the first book.[13][14]

Some of the Préludes were adapted to form the dynamic soundtrack of Untitled Goose Game.[15][16]


  1. ^ "Bohuslav Martinu : catalogue des oeuvres, numéro 101–200". Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  2. ^ a b "Claude Debussy – Biographie: 1910–1914". Centre de documentation Claude Debussy. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  3. ^ a b Roberts 1996
  4. ^ "Classical Music – The Classical Source – Debussy's Préludes – Ivan Ilić". The Classical Source. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  5. ^ Siek, Stephen (2011). England's Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay. Washington: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0810881617, pp. 324-25
  6. ^ See IMSLP scores.
  7. ^ "Claude Debussy: Voiles". Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  8. ^ Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal
  9. ^ Debussy at 150: Peter Breiner Orchestrates Debussy's 24 Préludes, Naxos Records, Hong Kong, n.d.
  10. ^ Preludes: Recomposition for Symphony Orchestra,, 2006
  11. ^ Debussy: The Philharmonia, Classical CD Review, 2002
  12. ^ Colin Matthews: The Debussy Preludes, Barnes and Noble, 2011
  13. ^ Book I, "Minstrels" on YouTube, Noam Zur orchestration and conducting, Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2014
  14. ^ "Debussy Préludes, Book 1", Sean Osborne Music, 2008.
  15. ^ Lee, Dami (23 September 2019). "How Untitled Goose Game adapted Debussy for its dynamic soundtrack". The Verge. Retrieved 23 September 2019.
  16. ^ Couture, Joel (17 February 2020). "Road to the IGF: House House's Untitled Goose Game". Gamasutra. Retrieved 17 February 2020.


  • Roberts, Paul (1996). Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]