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Debussy: Preludes and Images (CD Piano Classics - Alessandra Ammara, 2016)

Claude Debussy is, together with Maurice Ravel, the most important French composer and one of the main “fathers” of European 20th century music. With his highly anti-conventional character, he was able to create his own unique style, one that was completely new, grounded on a visionary conception of timbre and independent from the logic of traditional forms and harmonies. Also in the realm of the piano Debussy’s legacy is of notable significance. His approach to piano writing, indirectly moulded on the example of Chopin, is radically innovative and concurs with his personal conception of sound. The observation of nature, through the eyes of a symbolist more than an impressionist, is a fundamental element of Debussy's poetics, as he himself declared: «Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. It is responsible for the motion of the waters, for the play of curves described by the changing breezes; nothing is more musical than the setting of the sun. For those who see with emotion, the most beautiful example of development is written in that book too little read by musicians, that of Nature».


Born in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye in 1862, Debussy had a somewhat varied and unsettled musical formation, immediately characterized by his intolerance of academicism. He studied the piano with a pupil of Chopin, organ with César Franck and composition with Ernest Guiraud. His earliest compositions were not unanimously appreciated and were bitterly criticized, especially by those who judged them on the basis of traditional aesthetics. In 1884, at his third attempt, Debussy won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which earned him a period of residence in Villa Medici in Rome, from 1885 to 1887. More significant, though, was his encounter with the works of Wagner in Bayreuth in 1889. Although he would not admit it, the German composer’s innovative harmonic sensuality certainly had a profound influence on the development of his poetics. Another rich source of inspiration for Debussy was the music of Java, whose timbres (especially those of the gamelan) he tried to recreate also on the piano. The fascination with the exotic was, in fact, a common element among many French artists at the end of the 19th century. The closest to Debussy, even more so than Mallarmé and Baudelaire, was the poet Paul Verlaine, who shared his respect for classicism, while maintaining a distance and a melancholy irony. After returning from Rome Debussy plunged into the Bohemian milieu of Paris, also leading a rather stormy sentimental life, in apparent contrast with the enchanted lucidity of the suspended magic of his music. After a lengthy clandestine affair with Blanche Vasnier, the wife of a rich Parisian lawyer, Debussy cohabited with Gaby Dupont, at the same time having a relation with the singer Thérèse Roger. Gaby was then abandoned in favour of a model, Lily Texier, and tried (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide. But a few years later the same fate awaited Lily, who shot herself with a pistol when Debussy left her for Emma Bardac, already the wife of a banker. With Emma he had his only child, a daughter affectedly called Chou-Chou, to whom he dedicated his Children’s corner. Debussy died in Paris in 1918 from a bowel tumour during the German bombings. One year later also his daughter Chou-Chou died.


The piano holds an important place in Debussy's output. His works for piano allow us to trace the evolution of his aesthetics and appreciate the metamorphosis of his conception of timbre, which passes from the late-romantic tendencies of his youthful pieces, like the Nocturne of 1892, to the already personal language of Images, until reaching the radical alchemies of the Préludes.


The Nocturne offers a foretaste of some of the features that will become peculiar to Debussy's style. The harmonies are already used for the effect of colour: though still anchored to the rules of tonal harmony (we are in the Chopinian key of D flat major), the modulations often serve to obtain a particular type of shade. There are echoes of Fauré (especially of some of his Nocturnes) and, to some extent, also of Scriabin, particularly in the sensuality with which Debussy shapes the phrases.


The first triptych of Images (first series), composed in 1905, marks a fresh turning point in Debussy's piano writing, now even more closely linked to his symbolist aesthetics. Reflets dans l’eau once again takes its poetic inspiration from water, achieving a distilled sonority through a masterly exploitation of the resonances and harmonic sounds of the piano. Here water is symbolically evoked not through onomatopoeic re-creations, but with allusions that are almost metaphoric. The liquidity of the higher notes is immersed in arpeggios that are at once luminous and soft. Water, therefore, not as a described object, but as a mirror that reflects lights and colours, filtering them photographically through its own rippled and mobile surface. Hommage à Rameau returns to the appeal of the Baroque, now in a still more subjective and interiorized form compared to previous instances. Mouvement explores the kinetic and evocative potential of the constant repetition of a single element. Far from the material outcomes of minimalism, here the reiteration of a small pattern of three notes gives rise to soft, veiled figurations. The listener is not stupefied but gently transported into other dimensions.


The 24 Préludes represent Debussy's greatest piano masterpiece and taken as a whole they constitute a sort of poetic and aesthetic manifesto of his unique creative path. Written between 1909 and 1913, and grouped into two books of 12 Préludes each, they present a radicalization of the formal and instrumental principles that Debussy had progressively refined over the years. The construction of form through juxtaposed panels is now applied systematically and the definition of the timbre in all the minimal elements that make up the musical discourse is pursued almost obsessively. The composer himself described this peculiar method of formal elaboration: «It is impossible to relate it to established, one might say official, forms; it is sustained by and is composed of small successive touches, connected by a mysterious thread and by a gift of luminous clairvoyance». The attention given to nature as a main source of inspiration is of prime importance here, also from the perspective of giving rise to “organic” forms, grounded on the example of living organisms, as opposed to artificial and rigid structures, crystallized by previous musical tradition. In choosing the title 24 Préludes Debussy makes implicit reference to the great examples in the history of piano literature: the 24 (x 2) Preludes and Fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier and the 24 Preludes by Chopin. And in fact, traces of Bach, and of Chopin, are in some ways perceptible in the language of the Préludes: from Bach they derive the transparency of the musical thread and the clarity of the polyphonic interplay, which here has become also polytimbric; Chopin instead can be discerned in the visionary imagination that underlies the exploration of timbre and harmony. Preludes to what? To the title, one might say. The Preludes of Bach and Chopin had no title. Those of Debussy do have titles, but “a posteriori”, in the sense that they are written at the end of each piece preceded by three dots, as if the composer wanted to avoid conditioning the performer. And yet the titles are nevertheless highly evocative and pregnant, even though in some cases they are open to multiple interpretations. This is the case with Voiles, which can mean “sails” or “veils”: we are left with the idea of soft and fluctuating movements, inscribed moreover in a highly defined polytimbric framework. Minstrels does not refer to the medieval strolling players, but rather to the musical-theatre shows of the same name, popular in America in the 19th century and which Debussy probably encountered during his trip to England. The Préludes also contain numerous references to exotic, medieval or mythological settings, such as Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi). Legendary too is the subject of the Cathédral Engloutie, inspired by the story of the sunken cathedral off the coast of the island of Ys, which on some mornings is said to re-emerge from the waters, accompanied by the chanting of monks and the tolling of bells. Here Debussy is ingenious in recreating the buried solemnity of the cathedral: a chorale theme in chords immersed in a bed of low arpeggios gradually emerges, leading to its intense and fatal fortissimo reappearance, only to sink once again down to the lowest registers. Among the Préludes there is no shortage of explicit allusions to natural objects or phenomena, such as the wind, the mists, the rural landscapes so dear to the composer: Le vent dans la plaine, Les collines d'Anacapri, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest, Des pas sur la neige. Inspiration derived from literature or art can be found in «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» (a line from Baudelaire’s poem “Harmonies du soir”) and in La fille aux cheveux de lin, which transposes into music the pure and mystical beauty of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The technical solutions are astonishingly modern, playing on effects of spatial depth and opposing distances that anticipate the attainments achieved by composers of the second half of the 20th century in terms of sound spatialization.


Roberto Prosseda