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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French pianist and composer whose exceptional work in technical composition made him one of the most prominent composers of his era.
He is considered to be the founder of modern sensualist compositions, creating a new trend in musical performance by use of contemporary scales and a diversity of tonal arrangements, greatly influenced by Russian compositions and Eastern cultures. He had the unique ability of collectively assimilating different tonal variations simultaneously to form a richer unified reminiscent resonance which earned him the title of a musical impressionist.
His mastery in solo piano saw the addition of Preludes to his repertoire, which until his contribution were not regarded as important in musical composition. Debussy composed the entire collection of preludes over a period of three years (1910-1913) and divided them into two separate books, each book containing twelve preludes.
The 24 Preludes composed by Debussy in book 1 and 2 are short musical pieces that are meant to put across a specific atmosphere or feeling which is pointed out by the title of each piece.
The titles are placed at the foot of each peace to allow the pianist and the audience to inwardly interpret the music before they get to understand the composer’s perspective (Harpole 1986). The Preludes are considered to be among the epitome of the composer’s keyboard mastery, but even Debussy himself admitted that not all the preludes received the commendation he had hoped for.
What the West wind saw (Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest) is the seventh of the twelve preludes in Claude Debussy’s first book of preludes. The piece begins with tension preceded by a metrical build up of the bass which elevates the tension present in the music (Roberts 1996).
The build up of the bass is gradual and then rapidly explodes with two tonal variations the high pitched tones in the registry giving out a howling sound while a growling sound emanates from the lower pitch tones to give a cumulative effect of rage and destruction (Harpole 1986).
Like most of the other preludes, Debussy withholds from the latent use of imagery and instead bases What the West wind saw entirely on musical and harmonic texture. He creatively replicates the natural sound of wind to produce the wailing, loud and moving sounds of a powerful wind (Muller, nd).
This three minute prelude is supposed to induce the violent and overwhelming power of an aggressive wind. The piece is also particularly potent in tritones and whole-tone motifs which can be found in all of the aggressive chords and fast comprehensive arpeggios (Roberts 1996). Debussy’s virtuosity is evident in the rapidly alternating tonal variations and the low range tremolos (Weiss 2003).
Book 1 is made up of 12 preludes, What the West wind saw being one of them. Most of the preludes in book one are of a light texture though there are some preludes that come close to What the West wind saw (Park 1967). The first prelude, Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) sharply differs from West Wind in melody and harmony.
The harmonies are of a lighter tone and the melody is more prominent and much closer to the accompanying chords. It also bears percussion accents which are not present in the west wind. However, the technique used is similar to that of west wind in terms of layered texture and modal scales.
Voiles (Veils or sails) uniquely lacks the half-step and bears a prominent B-flat tone through out. The melody is intermittent projecting sonorously whole tone scale. This prelude bears no similarity to west wind both in character and color (Lockspeiser 1978).
Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain) suggests the presence of wind and is similar to west wind in content (Harpole 1986). The prelude is however different from west wind in that it suggests a calmer and more bearable wind in form of a breeze.
Whole tone scale only appears in the middle, the rest of the prelude being dominated by pentatonic scale (Weiss 2003). Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) just like west wind, this piece is rich in harmonic content (Lockspeiser 1978).
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The melody is however different from west wind, and this prelude bears two thematic melodies that are layered over and interchanged through out the prelude. Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) is similar to west wind in that it is richly embodied with energy. The difference is that the energy present in The Hills of Anacapri is thematic to a party mood whereas the energy of west wind is more of a destructive nature (Park 1967).
Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) precedes west wind in book 1 and is a sharp contrast to the latter prelude. The perelude has a slow sad melody of the minor keys and ends with staccato bass. La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) follows west wind and the use of simple harmonies make this prelude openly different from west wind.
The melody is pentatonic, a stark contrast to the previous prelude (Roberts 1996). The layered harmony of melody and diatonic chords gives this prelude an impressionist aura. La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade) unlike the west wind is unique in attempting to imitate a guitarist as he attempts to serenade a maiden (Harpole 1986).
This prelude is full of imagination and unlike west wind bears a legato melody together with a concise cadenza. La cathédrale engloutie (The engulfed cathedral or the sunken cathedral) is distinctively rich with Impressionist technique. Similar to west wind, this prelude uses of modal scales but differs from west wind due to the presence of pentatonic scales, bell-tones, and pedal-points that are used to sustain specific notes or chords.
The prelude La danse de Puck (Dance of Puck) is a light and comical examination of an imaginary world and is Scherzos in nature (Weiss 2003). Unlike west wind, this prelude is presented as a sonata which begins with three F flat keys (Muller, nd). Chromatic scale, thematic rhythms and bitonal melodies are constantly used to magnify the comical effect of the prelude.
Minstrels is the final prelude of the first book and like the previous prelude, it is dotted with humor. A dominant G-major totonic pedals holds this prelude together and acts the constant through out the prelude. Banjo and drum themes make a number of appearances through out the prelude to give it an animated feel (Weiss 2003).
Debussy’s mastery on the solo piano is evident by the uniqueness and richness of all 24 preludes that he composed. Even though his initial work was not widely recognized or appreciated by accomplished solo pianists and composers, Debussy deeply understood that music was not about physical learning rather it was a form of suggestive expression. His attitude led him to produce some of the greatest works in the early 20th century that set the trend for other pianists and composers.
The prelude What the West wind saw can be said to be one of Debussy’s greatest accomplishments due to the fact that no other composer had ever successfully attempted to imitate the sounds of nature as he did. A captivated audience would easily get a mental picture of a strong wind clashing with sea water as it made its way to the shore. This makes What the West wind saw unique in many ways, both in composition and in content.
There are however other preludes that are similar to west wind in terms of tonal composition and harmonic structure. Preludes such as The Wind in the Plain and The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air bear a slight semblance to the west wind but the difference is much greater. A closer examination of Debussy’s book 1 of preludes reveals the overwhelming difference the west wind has from other preludes.
The west wind is inanely violent and loud and the detailed technique requires a pianist’s full attention when playing it. The layered tonal pattern found in the west wind and also in some of the other preludes is what caused Debussy to be referred to as an impressionist. All in all, Debussy’s work is indeed truly unique and light years ahead of other pianists of his generation.
Harpole, W. (1986) Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan. 3rd edition. London: Heinemann.
Lockspeiser, E. (1978) Debussy: His Life and Mind. 1st edition. New York: Cambridge University Press,
Muller, N. (n.d) Preludes. Piano Society Web. Available from: http://www.pianosociety.com/
Park, R. (1967) The Later Style of Claude Debussy. 1st edition. Michigan: The University of Michigan.
Roberts, P. (1996) The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. 2nd edition. Portland: Amadeus Press.
Weiss, C. (2003) Debussy’s preludes book 1 and 2. Ohio: ivory classics [E-book]. Available from: http://www.ivoryclassics.com/releases/73004/pdf/booklet.pdf