Prelude (Suite pour le piano, 1901)

(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)

The Suite pour le piano (for the piano) is a tremendous departure in Debussy’s piano music. Prior to its publication the most adventurous of Debussy’s piano works was the Suite Bergamasque. While the Suite Bergamasque included the beautiful and harmonically sophisticated Clair de Lune, the Prelude from Suite pour le piano shows for the first time the harmonic elements, virtuosity, pianism and raw power that was to appear in Debussy’s subsequent piano works.

From Roberts, page 5-6: “For one contemporary critic the suite [pour le piano] had ‘the force of a programme, if not a manifesto.’ It was a work, Emille Vuillermoz wrote, dedicated ‘not to instrumentalists but to the instrument itself’.” on p. 6: “In Pour le piano Debussy certainly manifests, in the outer movements, a new and confident command of the keyboard: the glissandi and the fortissimo chords of the “Prelude” are electrifying…”

Emotional Content: This prelude is exciting, with forward momentum until the very end. It is to be played fast, sure, with strong contrasts yet avoiding any feeling of heaviness. Even when things seem to wind down in the middle (m. 59) it is no more than two measures before the energy starts to build again. No romantic interpretations here.

Shape and Flow: This piece is moderately complex: The overall structure is roughly ABCABC’DE, though the first A starts with a short introduction which anticipates B, and none of the repetitions are exact. Section E is the four measures at the end, which I feel are of sufficiently different character to deserve a section. I am using the breakdown A = m. 1-42, B = m. 43-60, C = m. 61-96, second A = m. 97-118, second B = 119-133, C’ = m. 134-147, D = m. 148 – 157, E = m. 158 – 163. This breakdown can certainly be debated, in particular a case can be made to consider the opening five bars as another section.

There are several themes which weave through the sections:

  • Theme I appears in the bass of the four opening measures and again in m. 127 as the close of the second B section.

  • Theme II is longer and more lyrical, and appears in the bass in m 6, and appears again in m. 27, in the treble in m. 75 as the second theme of section C, and in m. 97 for the repeat of section A.

  • Theme III is transitional in nature and first appears in m. 24, then again in m. 40 and 115. It can also be seen as the seed of the cadenza material in section D.

  • Theme IV is an extension of theme I (almost a theme I’) and first appears in the climax at m. 43 and is the defining theme of the B section. It also appears in section C in the bass at m. 61, in the repeat of section B and is echoed in section C’.

The piece is harmonically adventurous, starting conventionally in Am. The B section finds C major and the two whole-tone scales in subsequent chords producing a chromatic effect. Whole-tone scales are prevalent in section C, along with a somewhat more conventional chromaticism in m. 67-70. The contrast between ancient minor and whole-tone scales is the focus of section D.

Schmitz (p. 69) sums up the flow as follows: “In the performance of the prelude the sharp contrasts in its texture reflect sharp contrasts in interpretative objectives. It is sturdy (m. 1-5; 43-57), it is strong in close-knit texture (m. 6-43), it is riotous (m. 51-57), surprising in contrasts of immobility and motion (m. 57-59), mysterious and agitated (m. 59-71). It is again immobile, and we listen to toy music (m. 71-97), but the sturdy and strongly knit section returns (to m. 134), a delicate suspense (m. 134-147), a return to exuberant, riotous glory which is majestically crowned by the end (m. 159-164).” While I don’t completely resonate with Schmitz’s emotional characterizations of the sections I think he as aptly expressed the varieties of emotion in the piece.

My take on the flow of this piece is: after the four opening bars of theme I plant our feet firmly on the ground, we start moving forward with the remarkable momentum and warmth of theme II. We are taken to a teasing climax with the appearance of theme III in m. 24, which suddenly winds down only to build again with theme II until the real climax of theme IV of section B in m. 43. After this climax we are taken into a colder, more abstract but still highly energetic world in section C. Again, theme II appears in m. 75 feeling colder but moving us forward (I cannot agree with Schmitz’s characterization of this section as “toy music”), spiraling downward at the end of section C to find the solidity and warmth of the return of section A at m. 97. This time we skip the teasing climax to the full climax in the return of section B at m. 119. But this time instead of the climax winding down we find new energy in the return of theme I in m. 127, which diminishes in energy but not momentum to section C’ in m. 134. This section is filled with quiet tension, as if we can feel the outburst that is about to come. The energy slows down through m. 137-141, almost taking a breath before the falling broken chords of m. 142-147 plunge us into the dynamic, “kaleidoscopic” (from Schmitz p. 69) cadenza of section D.

Schmitz (p. 70) also makes some general remarks about performance: “…Confusion of the patterns, running together of the harmonies, are both evils to be avoided. The texture has all the harmonic richness it can afford without careless mergings of its progressions.” “The whole-tone sections (beginning m. 71) must receive absolute, clock-like precision of interpretation and, until m. 97 must remain free of romanticism, affectations in dynamics and tempo”. I feel this last comment applies to the entire piece.

Section A:

m. 1-5: Theme I. These bars should be played non-legato and very solidly, with the entire diminuendo occurring in m. 5. I bring in a little sustain pedal in the last two beats of m. 5 to soften the transition to Theme II.

m. 6-23: Theme II. This theme is very beautiful and lyrical, and is between a sustained low A bass pedal note, and a wash of arpeggiated chords in the treble. Brining out the melody of theme II in this context is perhaps the greatest technical challenge of the entire piece. There are two related problems: 1) how to sustain the pedal note and 2) how to maintain the sense of a wash in the treble while simultaneously maintaining the transparency required for the delicate, lyrical yet clear expression of theme II. Simply holding the sustain pedal for the entire section provides the wash but results in mud which completely obscures theme II. I voice the theme II melody as legato with a somewhat sharp, bell-like strike while using a gentler touch on the arpeggios. But the main problem is: how to pedal. There are three possible solutions:

  • Take the low A notes with the sostenuto (middle) pedal. Elder (p. 273) quotes Walter Gieseking as saying “Directly after playing the bass A, with no other note down, depress the sostenuto pedal.” In other words, when the figure of m. 6 appears grab the low A’s with the sostenuto pedal before depressing the sustain pedal and playing the melody or treble notes. This happens very quickly but after some practice I’m able to do this most of the time. The sostenuto pedal is then held until the appearance of theme III in m. 24. While the sostenuto pedal is down I perform light 1/2 – 3/4 changes of pedal on every beat to keep clarity with a sense of an aural wash. Later repetitions of theme II are handled similarly.

  • If there is no sostenuto pedal, Elder (p. 274) says Walter Gieseking “relegated all the sixteenth notes to the right hand”. In other words he played both the theme II melody and the treble notes with the same hand while holding the low A with the left hand. I find this quite difficult, but if I could do it I imagine I would do the same light 1/2 – 3/4 changes of pedal on every beat as above.

I find both of these solutions technically challenging: I can’t do the first reliably and I can’t do the second at all. So I have used the following:

  • Do half changes of the sustain pedal on every beat. On my piano the treble notes are damped before the bass notes at about 1/2 pedal release, so by doing half-changes of the sustain pedal I can mostly dampen the treble notes while sustaining the bass notes. This is obviously highly dependent on the behavior of the piano and may not work on some pianos.

m. 24-26: Theme III: I play non-legato but not quite staccato without any pedal.

m. 27-38: Theme II: same as last time.

m. 39-42: Theme III: This time we are building to a climax. I play m. 39 and most of m. 40 with no pedal, depressing the sustain pedal on the last beat of m. 40 and holding it through m. 42.

m. 42-56: Theme IV: Loud and strong. I use the sustain pedal throughout, with a full change on every measure. I hold the middle c notes with my left hand while playing the chords of m. 51-55. The low notes of m. 55-56 I play as grace notes, trying to keep the chords in strict time.

m. 57-60: I hold the sustain pedal throughout, and slowly release through m. 59-60. I depress the soft pedal at the end of m. 60.

m. 51-67: Theme I: I play non-legato, keeping the bass melody clear and sharp (though quiet). Following Walter Gieseking, quoted in Elder (p. 273) I use accent pedaling on the last two eight-notes of m. 65 and 66.

m. 67-70: I treat this section as starting clear and becoming a wash with increasing volume, doing progressively more partial sustain pedal changes on each beat (so there is barely a sustain release by the end of the section). I slowly release the soft pedal somewhere in m. 68.

m. 71-90: Theme II: To me this section is clear, quiet and in strict time. I’m pretty liberal with the sustain pedal here, with changes following the slur marks in the treble. In m. 79-82 and m. 87-90 I pedal following the slur marks in the low voice (the A flat). Elder (p. 231) says Walter Gieseking held the sustain pedal from m. 71 all the way to m. 97.

m. 91-96: I hold the sustain pedal, allowing mush to develop, out of which will come the reprise of theme II.

m. 97-114: Theme II: Same as last time

m. 115-118: Theme III: non-legato without pedal for m. 115-116, then slowly depress the sustain pedal for the notes of m. 117.

m. 119-126: Theme IV: Same as last time

m. 127-133: Theme I: I play the chords legato with lots of sustain pedal, but with full changes on each harmonic change. I’m striving here for clarity with lots of power and energy. The diminuendo in m. 133 is rapid.

m. 134-141: I find these measures difficult to play to my satisfaction: There are four parts here, each with differing requirements. The bass notes must be sustained while the trill holds the high-energy feeling, at the same time the middle octaves and the soprano 2-note melody build the tension and much be in the foreground. And all of this has to happen in piano to pianissimo. I have trouble sustaining the important bass notes while maintaining transparency for the melodic parts. A good touch to properly voice the parts is critical here. Changing the pedal with the bass notes is the only way I can sustain those notes. I find that the soft pedal here is not so good on my piano because it muffles the sharpness of the two melodic lines. Anyone have any suggestions?

m. 142-147: At the end of m. 141 I put a very small breath, depressing the soft pedal for the broken arpeggios. Then I start m. 142 a little slowly and as quietly as possible, building throughout this section. I change the sustain pedal on every bass note and release the soft pedal around m. 144.

m. 148-157: This cadenza is really fun to play. I pay strong attention to the dynamical markings, using the soft pedal in m. 153 with release early in m. 154. I pedal following the slur markings, with the exception of the section half of m. 149 which I play without pedal.

m. 158-163: Play loud, setting up the silence for the sublime opening chords of the Sarabande.

9 comments on “Prelude (Suite pour le piano, 1901)

  1. Voice Lead Machine says:

    This is pretty cool, but I think a Harmonic Analysis would be more dope than just the formal analysis.

  2. Steve Bryson says:

    A harmonic analysis would be very cool but I am completely unqualified to do that. Does anyone out there want to contribute one?


  3. Justin says:

    Nice, do you have any tips for measures 150-154? I cannot get it to sound even and clean. any specific fingerings or changes of the hands you use?

  4. Wanchun Song says:

    Hi, Steve:

    Thank you so much for your website and your amazing work! I really enjoy your ideas and am willing to be your piano buddy to share my experience with you and other readers. Do you just work on Debussy or you are also interested in other classical composers’ work?

    For m. 6-23, you suggest taking the low A notes with the sostenuto (middle) pedal. However, if you just do this, the treble part may sound too bright/sharp and lose the smooth softness that is required. if you add some soft pedal (una chorde) at the same time in addition to both sostenuto and sustain pedals, you would achieve more colourfulness and consistency with tone. Have you ever tried to use left foot to tap on both una chorde and sostenuto pedals while the right foot controls the sustain pedal? The key is to external rotate your left foot so that you can use the heel of the foot to hold the sostenuto pedal down while forefoot part to touch and adjust the depth of una chorde pedal. It certainly takes time to practice in order to master this technique comfortably.

  5. sarah says:

    Hi, Steve,

    It was fun to read through your analysis. I’m preparing the Pour Le Piano for a doctoral audition, and was just looking around a little bit on the internet at some other interpretations, and stopped by your site a moment. The only comment I would make is a suggestion:
    The Prelude is dedicated to M.W. de Romilly who stated that the feel of the prelude should be that of the gamelan in Bali or Java. The gamelan was an ensemble made up of drums, gongs, metallic keyboard instruments (similar to our xylophones), plucked strings, and often a low stringed instrument (called a rebab). Envisioning yourself as the orchestral gamelan can make a huge difference in how you decide to color this piece, ie: trying to imitate the sound of the gong or the sitar. Just a thought for you!

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  7. LEARN MORE says:

    It’s fantastic that you are getting thoughts from this piece of writing as well as from our dialogue made at this place.

  8. wildlife945 says:

    I’m currently playing this prelude and this helped me understand my piece better. Thanks for all of the helpful information. I’ll definitely come back to this source.

  9. ezzy says:

    This piece is very helpful

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