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Claude Debussy's Painterly Preludes

Claude Debussy gave many of his piano preludes visually evocative titles, such as "The Sunken Cathedral" and "Footsteps in the Snow."
Wolfgang Schroetter
Claude Debussy gave many of his piano preludes visually evocative titles, such as "The Sunken Cathedral" and "Footsteps in the Snow."

Claude Debussy was slow to develop as a composer for the piano, despite the fact that it was his instrument of choice. But the piano works he did write are extraordinarily important. In their innovative treatment of sonority, in their use of unconventional modes and scales, and in their successful avoidance of the cliches of 19th-century "virtuosity." They open the door to an entire, new world of pianistic possibilities, a world that composers today are nowhere near finished exploring.

The floating, elusive quality of much of Debussy's writing for the piano — derived from a constantly changing yet agreeably static texture of bell-like tones overlapped and gradually decaying — is only one characteristic of a complex style.

By the time he wrote his preludes in the second decade of the 20th century, he had refined this idea. The twenty-four preludes have titles like "The Sunken Cathedral" and "Fireworks." Debussy draws upon the piano's ability to sustain tones and harmonies, to float in the air, and to intrigue the ear in an entirely new way.

Paul Jacobs' Bell-Like Sounds

Paul Jacobs, for me, is the gold standard for the piano music of Debussy. He recorded almost all of it for Nonesuch Records during the 1970's, including the two books of preludes on one release. The sound is slightly veiled, partly because of the recording technique and partly from the piano that was used. The instrument is a Bosendorfer, which has a very soft but big sound in the bass, and bell-like tones in the upper register. It's not as brilliant as a concert Steinway, but is very much like the sound Debussy himself achieved on his own pianos. The big, tolling, bell-like sound Jacobs uses in these pieces is ideal for this music.

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Ted Libbey
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