Claude Debussy's Préludes are 24 pieces for solo piano, divided into two books of 12 preludes each. Unlike some notable collections of preludes from prior times, such as Chopin's Op. 28, or the preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy's do not follow a strict pattern of key signatures.
Each book was written in a matter of months, at an unusually fast pace for Debussy. Book I was written between December 1909 and February 1910, and Book II between the last months of 1912 and early April 1913.
|Book I||Book II|
|1.||Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave
(Dancers of Delphi)
|2.||Feuilles mortes: Lent et mélancolique|
|3.||Le vent dans la plaine: Animé
(The Wind in the Plain)
|3.||La puerta del Vino: Mouvement de Habanera|
|4.||«Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir»: Modéré
("The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air")
|4.||«Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses»: Rapide et léger|
("Fairies are exquisite dancers")
|5.||Les collines d'Anacapri: Très modéré
(The Hills of Anacapri)
(Heather/Town in Eastern France)
|6.||Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent
(Footsteps in the Snow)
|6.||Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk|
|7.||Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest: Animé et tumultueux
(What the West Wind Has Seen)
|7.||La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent|
(The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences)
|8.||La fille aux cheveux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif
(The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)
|9.||La sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé
|9.||Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.: Grave|
(Homage to S. Pickwick)
|10.||La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme
(The Submerged Cathedral)
|10.||Canope: Très calme et doucement triste|
|11.||La danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger
|11.||Les tierces alternées: Modérément animé|
|12.||Minstrels: Modéré||12.||Feux d'artifice: Modérément animé|
Two of the titles were set in quotation marks by Debussy because they are, in fact, quotations: «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» is from Charles Baudelaire's poem Harmonie du soir ("Evening Harmony"). «Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses» is from J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which Debussy's daughter had received as a gift.
There is no proof that Debussy necessarily intended the preludes to be performed as a cycle, although the musical language throughout each book is so consistent that performers usually do so.
An important precedent was set on 3 May 1911 by the pianist Jane Mortier (to whom works were dedicated by Bohuslav Martinů and Erik Satie) who played the entire first book of preludes at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The German-English pianist Walter Morse Rummel, a student of Leopold Godowsky, gave the premiere of the entire second book of preludes in 1913 in London.
Initially, Debussy and other pianists who gave early performances of the works (including Ricardo Viñes) played them in groups of three or four preludes, which remains a popular approach today. This allows performers to choose preludes with which they have the strongest affinity, or those to which their individual interpretive gifts are most suited.
There is a strong tonal relationship between the preludes that suggests that the published order of the preludes is not arbitrary. For example, the first three preludes in the first book (Danseuses de Delphes, Voiles, and Le Vent dans la Plaine) revolve around the key of B♭. In these first three preludes, allusions to the key of B♭ disappear and reappear, yet a strong sense of fluidity and connection between the preludes is still maintained.
However, the order of the preludes is not considered imperative, as is the case with Chopin's preludes, for example. Several pianists have performed the set out of order, and at least one recording, by Ivan Ilić, changes the order of the set entirely.
The titles of the preludes are highly significant, both in terms of their descriptive quality and in the way they were placed in the written score. The titles are written at the end of each work, allowing the performer to experience each individual sound world without being influenced by Debussy's titles beforehand.
At least one of the titles is poetically vague: the exact meaning of Voiles, the title of the second prelude of the first book, is impossible to determine for certain, since plural nouns do not distinguish genders as the singular forms may do (in French, voiles can mean either "veils" or "sails").
The title of the fourth prelude «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» represents a citation from Charles Baudelaire’s poem Harmonie du soir from his volume of poems Les Fleurs du mal.
Numerous orchestrations have been made of the various preludes, mostly of La fille aux cheveux de lin and La cathédrale engloutie. Complete orchestrations of all 24 preludes include versions by Peter Breiner, Luc Brewaeys, Hans Henkemans, and Colin Matthews. Sean Osborn and conductor Noam Zur have orchestrated the first book.