Debussy: Préludes pour piano

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

The two books of Préludes by Claude Debussy (1862 -1918) are undoubtedly among the most important and popular piano compositions of the early twentieth century, and have exercised a truly seminal influence on the piano music of subsequent generations.

Published in 1910 and 1913 respectively, each book contains 12 pieces, each one of them an invitation to another unique, fully imagined world. In many ways a summation of Debussy’s extraordinarily vivid piano writing, these miniatures are self-contained miracles of sonority, impressionistic and colourific effect; they are equally a lesson in taut compositional clarity and structural genius.

Originally published by Durand, the Préludes are now available in various combinations and editions from most of the major publishing houses, including Henle Verlag, Wiener Urtext, Edition Peters, Schirmer, Alfred and Dover.

In this review I am looking at the new urtext edition by Thomas Kabisch, published by Bärenreiter in two volumes; both volumes are exemplary in their scholarship, also including helpful editorial fingering supplied by the pianist Martin Widmaier.

Préludes pour Piano (1er Livre)

The Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the first book of Préludes appeared in 2014. According to the publishers,

Those 12 titles are:

  • (… Danseuses de Delphes)
  • (… Voiles)
  • (… Le vent dans la plaine)
  • (… “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir”)
  • (… Les collines d’Anacapri)
  • (… Des pas sur la neige) 
  • (… Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest) 
  • (… La fille aux cheveux de lin) 
  • (… La serenade interrompue)
  • (… La Cathedrale engloutie)
  • (… La danse de Puck)
  • (… Minstrels) 

Much has been made of the way that Debussy added these titles at the end of each piece, rather than at the start, perhaps encouraging the player to engage with each piece on their own terms, without first being influenced by his titles.

Among this collection, one finds several of the composer’s most popular and frequently performed solo piano pieces, and I would suggest that this is essential music for all diploma-level students to explore. Many of the pieces could also be attempted at Grade 8, and some have appeared in syllabi over the years.

A Comprehensive Resource

A number of unique features make this edition more than simply a sheet music publication.

Not least of these is the extended ten-page Preface written by the editor, Thomas Kabisch, written in German and followed by English translation. As well as offering a general historical introduction to the work, and notes on the sources and the edition itself, this includes a detailed discussion of the “mottos” and titles of the pieces, an analysis of the meaning of each piece, and an excellent essay on the performance of Debussy’s piano music.

Still more unusually, there is a separate page of notes on the fingering written by Martin Widmaier (who also provides the fingering throughout the edition) and followed by 12 specially constructed Fingering Studies, each based on a specific passage from one of the Préludes but, as he explains:

The 12 Fingering Studies offer a novel and potentially very helpful approach to the technical challenges presented in the Préludes themselves, and give this particular edition a unique advantage. Widmaier’s fingerings, too, are a useful addition, helping the player make musical lines audible and supporting the realisation of the desired sound.

I can’t say how pleased I am to see a Glossary included, offering German and English translations of each and every French word and performance instruction included by Debussy in the Préludes. This is an invaluable time-saver, and very welcome.

As for the edition itself, this is as one would expect, exceptional. Kabisch has edited this Urtext edition based on the latest research findings, resulting in an authoritative publication. The Critical Commentary at the rear of the volume extends to seven pages.

Préludes pour Piano (2me Livre)

Newly released, Kabisch and Widmaier have maintained their benchmark high standards in their presentation and delivery of an authoritative urtext edition of Debussy’s second Préludes collection, originally published almost three years to the day after the first volume, on 19th April 1913.

Here, the postscript titles are:

  • (… Brouillards)
  • (… Feuilles mortes)
  • (… La puerta del Vino)
  • (… “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses”)
  • (… Bruyères)
  • (… “General Lavine”, eccentric) 
  • (… La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) 
  • (… Ondine) 
  • (… Homage à S. Pickwick Esq. P. P. M. P. C.)
  • (… Canope)
  • (… Les tierces alternées)
  • (… Feux d’artifice) 

The musical tone of these pieces is still more experimental than the first volume, and in particular reflects the impact of Stravinsky’s music on the composer.

In their technical, as well as musical demands, the pieces are generally a little more advanced than most of those in the first volume too; again, they can be confidently explored by players at Associate Diploma level.

Another Superb Edition

Kabisch has once again delivered a superb urtext edition for Bärenreiter, based on the latest research findings and taking account of all the known sources of the music, his readings and editorial decisions all recorded in the eight page Critical Commentary.

The eleven-page Preface as before includes information about the genesis, first performances, first responses and sources of the second livre, as well as an enlightening evaluation of the evolution of Debussy’s compositional style between the two volumes of Préludes.

As in the first volume, Kabisch also offers in-depth analysis on each Prélude in turn, based on a consideration of the function and effect of the mottos Debussy used for each piece. He concludes with useful notes on performance practice, and once again there is a hugely useful French-German-English Glossary of all the terms Debussy uses in these scores.

Whereas Martin Widmaier wrote in detail about the fingering in the first volume, here he helpfully addresses his remarks to the use of the pedal, such an important consideration for any pianist approaching this music.

Closing Thoughts

With a clear and spacious layout, practical page-turns and Widmaier’s insightful fingerings, these scores are truly unmissable, well-and-truly living up to Bärenreiter’s mission to offer ”The Musician’s Choice”.

There are many good publications of Debussy’s landmark Préludes of 1910 and 1913, but the Kabisch edition must be considered the front runner, and is in my view unlikely to be surpassed.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.