(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)
The First Arabesque is one of the first Debussy pieces I learned to play. It has a very light melody and brings a smile to anyone who listens to it. The first of Debussy’s published piano works, the Deux Arabesques are light pieces that probably date from a much earlier time: By 1888 Debussy had already published several works for piano and voice which have much greater sophistication than the Arabesques.
Emotional content: The first arabesque is a light, dreamy piece, emphasizing pleasantness. It is mostly delicate and soft, with a great deal of transparency. Somewhat like a sunny spring day. I think of the first section as a quiet walk in the park, the second section as humming/singing to one’s self in the walk, and the third section as returning to the walk. There is a real burst of joy at the end of the piece.
Shape and flow: The piece is in three sections, more or less an ABA form. The A section is somewhat more dreamy, with the B section being a little more playful. There is a recurring theme of arpeggios in triplets in both sections. The A section is uniformly soft and delicate, with dynamics ranging from pp to p. The dynamic climax appears in the B section in measure 49 then again in measures 53-54. The climax is sudden, moving from a piano to a forte then immediately to piano in 5 measures. But this is not the climax of the piece, rather an event in the middle of a sunshiny day. The emotional climax comes in measure 87, a quiet expression of happiness and joy.
The harmonic structure of this piece is discussed at length in Parks.
This is one of those Debussy pieces in which hitting the notes is not all that challenging, but great care must be taken to get the right subtlety of touch.
From Schmitz: The opening four measures should be homogeneous and even. Here and later in the piece the accents and melodic apexes may appear anywhere in a measure, e.g. the second beat in measure 3. This is something to watch. The theme starting in the 6th measure should be very even, and very light on the pedal. Keep a sense of melody in the right hand.
The opening is very beautiful and soft. Keep transparent, which means minimize use of pedal. I apply very little pedal with many quick half to full changes. I find that I only get a good feel for the triplets against eighths in the theme starting at measure 6 when I feel the left and right hands are completely independent. In other words I’ve never gotten a good feel by thinking of them as triplets against eighths.
I apply more pedal in measures 11 and 13 on in order to broaden the feel of the melody. This works because the melody now forms reasonable chords. Note the small crescendo in measure 13, but I don’t take this much beyond piano. To me the most important observation is the continuous melody in the right hand from measure 6 all the way to measure 26. There are nice subtle changes of mood and tempo with this melody. With the right touch it is very light and exquisite.
From Schmitz: The stringendo and ritendo (speedup and slowdown) are to be gradual and avoid breaking the sense of the melody. Similarly, the ritendo in measures 22 and 24 are to be rather subtle, not “a romantic display of passion and irregularity”.
The transition to the B section is formed of snippets, leading to the energetic crescendo of measures 34-36. This gives a sense of impulsiveness (appropriate to a sunny spring day), leading to section B.
I think of this section as someone breaking into a private song on the sunny spring day. Not sung out, more almost hummed to one’s self. I use fairly liberal pedal, creating a thick sound. Then the happiness becomes overwhelming, leading to the climax in measures 49 and 53-54.
From Schmitz: Note the interesting difference in phrasing between the right and left hand in measures 47-49 (and again in 51-54).
I play measures 47-49 and 51-54 with light pedal, striving for the phrasing and transparency in contrast to the beginning of section B. I don’t think of this as a heavy climax. Measure 55 then returns to the feeling of the beginning of section B.
Section A reprise:
The repeat of section A is essentially the same as the first time around until measure 87. For me the piece really takes off here, and is the real climax of the piece despite its quiet dynamics. Here I pick up the tempo somewhat. I also make sure the dual melody in the right hand has a strong sense of duet, keeping the voices distinct until they merge in measure 93. Then things wind down until the end.