(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)
A bergamasque is a 16th-century Italian dance, which in 1890’s France would evoke an archaic form of music (Roberts, p. 91). Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque is a collection of four pieces: Prelude, Menuet, Clair de Lune and Passepied. With the exception of Clair de Lune these are obviously early Debussy pieces, classical in form and, while very pleasant, only hint at the depth of Debussy’s later piano works. Two of the pieces, Menuet and Passepied are named for dance forms (though they are only remotely in those forms).
The Prelude is an opening piece for the suite with much grandeur and an almost archaic classical feel. Though it has a conventional forte, piano, forte structure, it also contains many changes, showing an almost improvisational style. Though it can sound improvised on first listening, this improvisational feel is the result of writing with close attention to structure and detail. To me this anticipates the chamber sonatas Debussy wrote towards the end of his life.
OK, I’ll admit that I never would have given this piece much attention if it were not in the Suite Bergamasque. It is the least compelling piece of the suite. But once I got into it I discovered that it is quite a lot of fun to play. It also makes a great warmup piece when starting a Debussy piano session. Played with enthusiasm and careful attention to detail it makes a grand opening.
Emotional Content: This piece is basically in a classical form and mood, with with a grand enthusiasm showing through. This enthusiasm is brought out via quick contrasts, such as between the grandeur in mm. 1-2 and the elegance of mm. 3-4.