Claude Debussy
12 Questions and Answers ...

On Debussy's Préludes

They are not only played in the concert hall, but also studied, taught and arranged every day by many people around the world: Debussy's Préludes.

1. What are preludes?

Originally, preludes were there to introduce a piece. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, they lost this meaning and developed into works in their own right. Composers usually wrote 12 or 24 short pieces because they wanted to exhaust all major and minor keys. In Debussy's case, only the number of his Préludes – two books of 12 pieces each – reminds us of the tradition; a tonal order was no longer important to him.

2. When did Debussy write them?

Debussy's piano pieces were written between 1909 and 1913. The 12 Préludes of the first book were published by the music publisher Jacques Durand on 14 April 1910, the second book three years later.

3. What did Debussy compose his Préludes for?

When Debussy composed his works, he did not have in mind that they would all be performed together in a concert. His English biographer Louisa Liebich recalled in her Memories of Debussy that the composer had said «that many of his Préludes were to be played only in private».

4. What inspired him?

Debussy's diverse interests are reflected in the Préludes: He was inspired by literature and art as much as by places, old buildings, archaeological objects, legends and everyday life. It is therefore impossible to identify just one source of inspiration. What is surprising is that 15 Préludes can be traced back in whole or in part to non-French inspirations.

5. How do we know what inspired him?

Debussy wrote a title in brackets at the end of each of his Préludes. In this way, he wanted the pianists not to have a specific image directly in mind, but to interpret his music individually.

6. Do we know what each work is influenced by?

With many of the pieces, it is not exactly comprehensible what they are influenced by. Was it a painting? Or was it a poem? One work, however, stands out a little: the 11th Prélude from the second book. Here Debussy offered a description of the compositional idea: «Alternating thirds».

7. Which instrument was Debussy playing when he wrote his Préludes?

Debussy had a Bechstein piano in his study and a Blüthner grand in the salon. However, he thought that his music sounded «best and most perfect on a Bechstein grand». In the Tonhalle Zürich, they are performed on a Steinway.

8. Who performed the Préludes for the first time?

Debussy premiered some of the Préludes himself. What a good pianist he was is shown in the description of the Italian composer Alfredo Casella: «Words are not enough to give an impression of how he interpreted some of his own Préludes. Not that he was distinguished by any particular virtuosity, but the sensitivity of his touch was incomparable; one had the impression that he was playing directly on the strings of the instrument – without any transmission mechanism. The result was a poetic miracle. He used the pedal in a very idiosyncratic way. In a word, he played like no other contemporary composer or pianist.»

9. Why is Debussy's music «impressionistic»?

Debussy is considered the founder of musical impressionism. He played with timbres as if with dappled and delicate colours on a canvas: he composed motifs and themes as short entities that appear in changing illuminations only for moments and disappear again shortly afterwards. Debussy, however, was no friend of this classification of his music, saying, «I'm trying to do something different from what the morons call ‹Impressionism, a term used as badly as possible, especially by the critics.»

10. What did Debussy's contemporaries think of his Préludes?

Even though Debussy's pieces were only performed individually during his lifetime, and some not at all, they enjoyed great popularity. When Debussy died in March 1918, Volume I had been reprinted five times and Volume II twice; thus 8360 copies of the first volume and 4000 of the second were in circulation.

11. What is it about Debussy's music that particularly fascinates Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who will play the Préludes at the Tonhalle Zürich?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is one of the most accomplished Debussy interpreters of our time. He is particularly fascinated by the Préludes, because he believes: «There are a lot of different Debussys. The ‹Suite bergamasque, for example, is very neoclassical; it's not the impressionist Debussy that everyone knows. But then there is the impressionism of the ‹Estampes and also an oriental influence. And then there is the modern Debussy, who is ahead of his time. The music of the ‹Préludes – especially the second book – is almost esoteric, and you have to make an effort to immerse yourself in its world. This is the Debussy that fascinates me the most: The Debussy who invented a new language.»

12. When were the Préludes first played in their entirety at the Tonhalle Zürich?

Usually only individual ones of the Préludes are performed. This is how they were usually performed at the concerts of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich. All 24 Préludes from both booklets have only ever been performed once before: on 23 October 1987 at a recital by Maurizio Pollini. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is thus the second pianist in the history of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich to dare to give a complete performance.

Translated with

June 2023
Sun 25. Jun

Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Piano Recital

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Klavier Debussy
published: 19.06.2023