In his seminal book on the composer’s life and music, Debussy (London, Dent & Sons Ltd, 1980 revision) Edward Lockspeiser called his hero “[…] a unique artistic phenomenon in the history of music” (Lockspeiser 162). Debussy was a fiercely independent composer, who like Beethoven learned from past masters only to blaze ahead on his own path, always the seeker. “For like Beethoven, Debussy knew that the burden of the explorer is that the promised land is never reached, and that each discovery, miraculous as it may be, is yet another of music’s imperishable illusions” (Lockspeiser 162). He was a part of no group and left no school behind him, although he was deeply influential to many strains of modernism.
The twenty-four preludes Claude Debussy composed for piano, divided into two sets of twelve, are a cornerstone of his mature creative output. Although they stand as some of the most inventive works ever written for piano, most listeners are hardly aware of their existence as a cohesive set. Again, in the words of Lockspeiser:
“In the two books of Preludes we are escorted on many novel journeys, the focus of Debussy’s musical telescope […], continuously changing as exotic images are revealed of the Orient, Spain, Italy and […] Scotland; as harsh, magnified caricatures are presented of the Victorian music-hall; as legend, prose and poetry are delineated in music; as the mysteries of nature are yet again evoked […]. Debussy shows himself in the Preludes to be as much a clairaudient as a clairvoyant. His mysterious conception of the tactile properties of music is equally remarkable, and there are pages which might almost bring music to the borders of an odoriferous […] art” (Lockspeiser 155-156).
Debussy was naturally curious and found profound musical inspiration in the exotic sounds of the Javanese Gamelan (which he discovered in 1889) and early American syncopated music (ragtime, banjo, band music), as well as in images of Japanese prints, in the lore of Moorish Spain, in the mysteries of Indian spirituality, in the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, in the 18th century of Rameau and Watteau, in the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, of cinema, theatre, dance and circus and of various legends and fairy tales from around the world. Inspiration came easily to Debussy: “[I am] a man who sees mystery in everything […]”, he once said.
His manner of composing for the piano was revolutionary. He was able to find colors in the sound production of the instrument that composers before him had never even explored. Having seen Franz Liszt perform as an old man in Rome, he was struck by his use of the sustaining pedal as “a kind of breathing;” Debussy’s writing, especially in the more virtuosic preludes, is very Lisztian indeed, as well as indebted to Chopin (who had been Debussy’s first teacher’s teacher). But he went further: “[…] the piano was to be transformed into an instrument of illusion […]” (Lockspeiser 155). He was, above all, a keen observer and listener, and it was the variety and beauty of the outside world, which led his inner world to flourish. In Debussy’s own words:
“The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird register complex impressions within us. Then, suddenly, without any deliberate consent on our part, one of these memories issues forth to express itself in the language of music. It bears its own harmony within it. By no effort of ours can we achieve anything more truthful or accurate. In this way only does a soul destined for music discover its most beautiful ideas” (in Lockspeiser 99).
Debussy’s genius is on full display in these preludes, all of which are conceptually vast, if miniature, masterpieces. As a set, they represent the quintessence of the composer’s mastery of his art and reveal the deep well of his soul.
While the titles to each prelude are of utmost interest and help guide the mind in its attempts to understand Debussy’s sometimes mysterious music, it is to be noted that the composer placed these titles in the score not at the top of each piece but at the end, a rather unusual place for a title. The reason for this is that Debussy did not want the title to define the music, but rather for the music to define the title. What was important to Debussy, ever a man of the senses, was for the listener to feel his music rather than to understand it…