Updated: Nov 9, 2021
The Preludes of Claude Debussy (1910) have always been just out of my reach. Exquisite recordings by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli don't help to make them any more reachable. There are twelve of them in Book 1, each as particular as a picture in an impressionist gallery. During the slow days of April and May, I've been trying to play them. I've managed four so far. The first is "Danseuses de Delphes," the Delphic Dancers, a ponderous little number that always makes me think of the hippos dancing in Fantasia. I've tried to liven it up - you can listen to my recording here.
The second is "Voiles," or Sails. There's very little wind here - mostly we're looking at the sky. That recording is also ready to listen to here.
The third is basically a mood piece, all lightning flashes and plinking raindrops, so it has to be Turner. Have a listen.
The fourth is the Baudelaire one. This one doesn't have a title, just a line of poetry from Uncle Charles himself: "Les Sons Et Les Parfums Tournent Dans L'Air Du Soir." The sounds and smells turn in the evening air. What the heck - let's go with Flaming June. This one's a beauty.
The fifth, "Les Collines d'Anacapri," or the hills of Anacapri, is a breezy walk in the Italian countryside, complete with jaunty popular songs.
The sixth is a slow walk in a blizzard, something like the end of Gerald in Women in Love. Des Pas Sur La Neige, "Footsteps in the Snow."
The seventh is a terrifying sequence of colorist swatches of an infernal storm. "Ce Qu'A Vu Le Vent d'Ouest" (What The West Wind Saw) is meant to strike fear into every would-be pianist. If you listen very carefully, you can hear that I left the washing machine on.
Then there's the one everyone knows: "La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin" (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). This was written for Chou-Chou, Debussy's beloved daughter, who died of diphtheria a year after it was written. There are hidden undercurrents in this piece that make it more than the confection it appears to be.
The ninth one took me so many takes that I just left the mistakes in - I think they make the piece more endearing. It's a collage piece called "La Serenade Interrompue" (The Interrupted Serenade) which does almost exactly what Braque and the other boys are doing at the time.
"All architecture," said Goethe, "is frozen music." Following the distinguished line of Flanders & Swann, I like to think of these recordings as defrosted architecture. This one is perfect for a hot day: "La Cathedrale Engloutie," or The Sunken Cathedral.
"La Danse de Puck" is one of two academy pieces that end the set. "The Dance of Puck" is more obvious in its external connection, and has the virtue of being nearly playable. After the Messiaenic rapture of "La Cathedral Engloutie," it acts as a palette cleanser (Puckish puns intended).
The last of the twelve is "Minstrels." Debussy may have intended this to serve as an amusing flourish, a final trifle - but of all of the twelve it is the most implacably unplayable. As the title suggests, it is an act of assimilation, unerringly imitating the music of the black vaudeville experience. As such, it is as much a record of a racist cultural transfer as anything from the Belgian Congo. The art of the piece is in its parody, and taken as a work of dry pastiche it is as successful as anything by Stravinsky or Picasso. But music doesn't get the benefit of the ideological doubt: where Picasso's Three Musicians, with its clear allusion to negro music (the harlequin pants, the saxophone) can serve as a record of its time, the ironies of Debussy's "Minstrels" fall disastrously flat. The only way to salvage the piece, I think, is to allow it to parody itself. So in this performance all the dynamics have been reversed.
The recordings are posted here: https://www.sebastianknowles.com/debussy-recordings