Debussy’s piano music is as significant as Satie’s, even if it isn’t always as obviously revolutionary. Debussy eventually became very mainstream and so his music had much more currency. And it’s been absorbed so much it’s sometimes hard to tell how exactly he was breaking away (but other times it is very obvious). As someone else said, this sounds modern.
Yet it is easier to listen to then, say, the very consciously “modern” music of the Viennese school.
I haven’t listened to Bach’s preludes in forever and haven’t ever heard Chopin’s, so I’m not sure I know enough about the form to comment authoritatively. (I can’t, really.) And all I’ve really heard lately are Satie’s, which are way, way out there. But, Debussy’s, whether as a set or not, still seem to break with the form in key ways (at least that’s my understanding). And they are very much in line with his impressionistic view of the world; one I really appreciate. Though I can’t tell you to what degree they challenge preludes as a form, I can certainly guess and they certainly seem to. This is much more about conjuring up moments than setting up any kind of idea, or created a unified set.
The second Book of preludes is, if anything, even more obscure, more in line with Debussy breaking away from the constrains of traditional piano cycles. Like much of Debussy’s work (and Satie’s), this feels like the death of programmatic nonsense and the also the death of linear development. I’m not sure these are his greatest piano pieces, but they are right up there.
Pour le piano (7/10)
This is a minor piece that is still (seemingly) technically difficult and kind of fun. It’s pretty damn showy and not really much more than a way for the pianist to show off various skills (in my completely uninformed opinion) but it at least commits fully to that. (I think maybe the saraband has become a famous?)
I don’t want to get carried away but these pieces feel to me like pretty close to the pinnacle of the obsession of Romantic composers with “folk” sounds, at least to this point in time (1903). Each piece is influenced by a different part of the world but the music manages to find that great place where it sounds both western and not, both of the tradition and not.
The first book is an absolute classic of impressionism; if I tried to picture impressionism in my mind, I’m not sure I could do a better job than “Reflets dans l’eau,” which literally conjures its title in music. Aside from perhaps Satie at his most impressionist, I’m not sure anyone had done anything like this yet. (And honestly, I cannot remember what Satie had done by this point.)
The other two pieces, though less famous, as no less impressionistic, though “Hommage à Rameau” occasionally tricks you into thinking you are listening to something more conventional. (“Mouvement” is practically electronic-sounding in its opening moments. It’s bonkers.)
The second book could I guess come off as a little less path-breaking or what have you but they find Debussy taking his ideas from the first book and merging them with the really place-specific sound images of the Estampes to I think great effect. If anything he’s doubling-down on the idea of specific impressions as opposed to musical progression. In addition, they’re pretty.
Children’s Corner (8/10)
I don’t get the musical joke of the first of these pieces, as I was born in a different time, to non-musical parents, but these pieces are sometimes difficult, impressionistic pieces not meant for a child to play. (Listen to them; only prodigies are playing these at young ages.) Perhaps the it’s the association with children, but I find them less compelling than the Images, even though they are still interesting and full of the stuff that makes Debussy so great (rapid changes in tempo and volume, surprising new melodies, etc).
To my ears, the Etudes really don’t sound that difficult on first listen, but then I can’t even play “Heart and Soul” on a piano. That’s a joke, that.
The Etudes are apparently some of the hardest to play in the repertoire, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. I do know that they sound like few Etudes before them (at least those that I’ve heard). And the Images are similarly out of step with tradition, albeit more so. Here are piano pieces that in many ways threw out tradition yet, because they never broke with tonality like some other contemporary music, they sound to our modern years as distinctly part of that tradition. This appears to be Debussy’s genius a century on. Or at least to me. Of course, they also sound very nice, which helps.
This is vibrant but sombre piece that sounds really hard to play (to my totally untrained ears). There’s lots of movement even though it’s brief and an image, rather than a progression. Neat.
D’un cahier d’esquisses (9/10)
This is a really deliberate, impressionistic piece that almost appears to fade out in the distance at times. It embodies much of what I like in Debussy’s more sedate material, as it careens from sounding like the pianist might be falling asleep to these great (relative) crescendos. Beautiful.
L’isle joyeuse (8/10)
This piece has those trills similar to Masques, composed around the same time. This piece strikes me initially as less impressive, but there’s more information about it out there, so it comes across as intellectually more impressive because you can read about how Debussy is playing with rules of tonality right at the time of the big break. He was probably doing the same thing on Masques only I didn’t notice.
La plus que lente (8/10)
My understanding is that this is an attack on the “slow waltz” craze of the era in Parisian society. As with much of Debussy’s music, it challenges your preconceived notions of what something can be – this certainly doesn’t fit with my ideas of a waltz (maybe I’m just not up on turn-of-the-century waltzes) except for brief moments. Try to dance to this. Good luck. (The tempo changes.)
Le petit Nègre (7/10)
Putting aside the name… This is quite a brief piece of Debussy. It is jaunty and feels a little bit like his attempt at the kind of thing Satie was doing at the same time, taking inspiration from American piano music. But it’s so much more idiosyncratic than Satie’s efforts, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Berceuse héroïque (8/10)
This is one of Debussy’s really deliberate pieces where the player sometimes sounds as if he is falling asleep. But, as usual, the tempo speeds up, and things build and build…until they don’t. He subverts the conventions with his usual wit and playfuness.
Hommage à Joseph Haydn (7/10)
I haven’t listened t Haydn in forever but I suspect that this homage is very much in line with how Debussy does these kinds of things. Sure, there’s a classical feel for a bit, and then, instead, there’s crazy Debussy rumbling which doesn’t really sound like Haydn at all.
Suite bergamasque (10/10)
This suite contains my favourite Debussy piece and the one that introduced me to his music, at an age far before I was aware of the vast majority of “classical” music – “Clair De Lune.” I cannot be objective about it – to me it is one of the masterpieces for piano from the end of the 19th century or early 20th century. (This suite was originally composed in 1890 but substantially revised – to an unknown degree – in 1905.) It caries me away to some other place.
The other three pieces are all well and good but they pale in comparison for me. That’s not fair at all, but I have a hard time listening to this whole thing as a suite simply because I have heard one part of it hundreds of times and the other three pieces only 4 or 5.
Danse bohémienne (6/10)
This is one of Debussy’s earliest piano pieces. It is quite traditional.
The reverie definitely conjures up the kind of swooning you would expect from such a piece, and there are definitely hints of what was to come, but this is still a relatively traditional piece that doesn’t quite break away from tradition in the way that so much of his later music does.
I don’t know the Marzurka form very well but this is a pretty traditional piece, to my ears.
Valse romantique (5/10)
Exactly what the the title says it is.
Arabesque No. 1. Andantino con moto (7/10)
This is a pretty piece but it is relatively traditional given Debussy’s later music (he was relatively young).
Arabesque No. 2. Allegretto scherzando (6/10)
This is more vibrant than the first arabesque; it’s sprightly I guess you could say. But it still really feels from another time than most of Debussy’s music.
The nocturne (one of three, but the only one he wrote for solo piano) is quite pretty, and there are hints to my ears that suggest later Debussy. But it’s still just the odd hint, and for the most part this is quite traditional.
Tarantelle styrienne (/10)
This feels like a predecessor of Debussy’s later parodies, where the title suggests you should dance but when you listen to it you’re less sure you can dance to it.
It’s less traditional-sounding to my untrained ears than most of his other stuff from 1890. Or at least it’s more exciting
Ballade slave (7/10)
Not knowing enough Slavic music from the era (or folk music from that area), I have no idea how authentic this is in terms of one of those Romantic pieces inspired by the common people’s music.
But it’s a nice enough piece, which makes more of an impression on me than a lot of Debussy’s music from around this time.
Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (7/10)
The fantasy is something Debussy never wanted to be performed while he was a live. That’s a little extreme, to put it mildly, but listening to it, one is aware of its Romantic nature – it’s very much of its time and, to my ears, only contains slight hints of what was to come.
If you like your lush Romantic strings, this is probably going to be a fine listen. But listening to it at the tail-end of all his piano works, it feels like it’s from a different time.
Frankly, I would have been more interested in listening to the two piano version made later.
An essential collection if you want to know what the big deal is about Impressionism.