Claude Debussy’s two books of preludes hold a special place in the piano repertoire, along with the cycle of 24 preludes by Frédéric Chopin and the 48 preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach, to which they are often compared. A first book of 12 was completed in 1910, with a second book following in 1913, not long after Debussy finished what was to be is final orchestral work, Jeux.
Each of the preludes has its own evocative title, although the composer insisted that these should appear in print only at the end of each piece, almost as an afterthought. In this way the sonic experience of the piece takes prominence over any implied visual imagery.
Brouillards (roughly translating as ‘mist’, or ‘fog’) is the first prelude in the second book and was completed at the end of December 1911, as indicated on this manuscript. Left hand chords move in a mostly stepwise procession around the white notes of the piano, enveloped by a ‘mist’ of fast notes played in the right hand, mostly centred on the black notes of the piano keyboard. The sonic effect is of an audible ‘mist’ obscuring something more or less discernible behind it. This texture clears at various points, revealing the left hand chords or another gesture – such as the strikingly stark octaves that appear in the middle of the piece at the extreme ends of the piano, ringing out an angular melodic motif.
This manuscript is a draft prepared prior to publication. The lack of dynamics and other technical and expressive instructions, as well as the distribution of pitches across staves (sometimes two are used, sometimes three) suggests that this was probably an earlier manuscript than the one used by the engraver of the first edition, which is now held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. There are few substantial differences to the musical text in this manuscript, although one notable amendment is the initial time signature of 2/4 that has been crossed out – to be replaced in the published edition (and Paris manuscript) by 4/8.
- Article by:
- Arnold Whittall
- Musical style, Music and modernism
Arnold Whittall explores changing approaches to harmony and the concept of tonality in early 20th-century music.