Welcome back to my site. This post is about the second piece in the Fleeting Sounds section: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir from the first book of Préludes, composed by Claude Debussy. (Check here to see the entire program.) (You can read more about the composer here.)
Claude Debussy, IV. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, Préludes, 1et livre (1910)
Debussy published his twenty-four preludes in two books of twelve in 1910 and 1913. The French composer was unquestionably inspired by Frédéric Chopin’s twenty-four preludes since the first book was published in the centenary year of the Polish composer’s birth.Debussy regarded Chopin’s pianism highly, possibly resulting from his early lessons with Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who was associated with Chopin.
Unlike Chopin, Debussy not only gave each prelude an evocative title but also placed the title not at the beginning but at the end of the prelude. To highlight the similarity between Symbolists and Debussy, Paul Roberts, the author of Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, quotes the Symbolist visual artist and Debussy’s friend Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916) speaking of the titles to his works:
“To designate my drawings by titles is sometimes to invite people to mis-understand them. The titles can be justified only if they are vague, indeterminate and suggestive, even at the risk of confusion, of ambiguity. My drawings are not intended to define anything: they inspire. They make no statements and set no limits. They lead, like music, into an ambiguous world where there is no cause and no effect.”
After performing Debussy’s prelude, the pianist can savor the resonance by uniting the title with the music she or he just performed, which is similar to the experience of reading a Symbolist poem or highly condensed poem such as haiku.
The title Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, translated as “Sounds and scents turn on the evening air” or “The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air”, is taken from the first stanza of the poem Harmonie du soir (Harmony of Evening) written by the symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) who had a significant impact on Debussy:
Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Now comes the time, when vibrating on its stem
Each flower sheds its scent like a censer;
Sounds and scents turn on the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!
The importance of Baudelaire to the composer is clear, given that his name is quoted together with the title at the end of the prelude in the score.
Paul Roberts suggests that the title alludes to synesthesia, “the fusion of the senses into a single harmonious sensation” because it implies the blend of the auditory (sound), visual (evening), and olfactory (perfume) senses. This blend of senses overlaps the melting boundaries of different art forms mentioned in the earlier post. As a result, the listener can savor the “air” or “atmosphere” of the music created by different elements dissolving into one, which presents the essence of Debussy’s aesthetics: “the Inexpressible, which is the ideal of all art”.
In this prelude, the French composer responds to Baudelaire’s poem in various ways. The first example is the ambiguous time signatures used in the first two measures: 3/4 and 5/4. This ambiguity certainly expresses the elusive swirling “air”. It is likely that Debussy assigned the time signature 3/4 in response to “melancholy waltz” in the poem, but because of the time signature 5/4 indicated at the beginning, the waltz sounds reluctant to move forward, giving us a hint of languor, which could be understood as a response to “languorous vertigo” in the poem.
Secondly, although the key signature and the overall sound world indicate that the tonal center is A, Debussy offers different sonorities by introducing notes that do not belong to A major. For example, B-flat inserted in the first two measures successfully emanates “melancholy” while D-sharp inserted in the last four measures, resulting in the Lydian mode, allows the piece to end with a tinge of exoticism, perhaps a reflection of his instruction “Comme une lointaine sonnerie de Cors” (like a distant ringing of horns).
Lastly, Debussy realizes musical “vertigo” through the up-down contour toward the end. Together with the instruction “Tranquille et flottant” (tranquil and floating) and the fragments of the music from the beginning in 5/4, the audience can experience “melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo” in the poem.
Again if you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:
Howat, “Foreword,” in Claude Debussy, Préludes, 1et et 2e livres, (Paris: Éditions Durand, 2007).
E. Robert Schmitz, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1966), 38.; Edward Lockspeiser, “Claude Debussy: French Composer,” on Encyclopædia Britannica (accessed June 18 2018), https://www.britannica.com.
Paul Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996), 30.
Linda Nochlin, “Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: 1874-1904”, in Sources and Documents in the History of Art Series, ed. H. W. Janson (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966), 194; quoted in Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 30.
Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 73-74.