This post is about two inseparable preludes composed by Debussy which depict two closely connected fleeting landscapes.
Claude Debussy, I. Brouillards, Préludes, 2e livre (1913)
Brouillards is another prelude composed by Claude Debussy which opens the second collection of the twelve preludes. The title is translated as Fog or Mists since there is no distinction between the two words in French language.
Although this prelude depicts a landscape similar to that of the previous piece by Janáček, the mood created by Debussy is quite different from the melancholic and ethereal atmosphere produced by Janáček; what Brouillards presents is the eerie and haunting air. Fog and mists do form a fleeting landscape, but it seems that Debussy and Janáček present different types of fleetingness. While the Czech composer’s Andante from V mlhách depicts the fleetingness of the mists, what Brouillards seems to communicate is the fleetingness of the blurred images we see in fog; this prelude by the French composer forces us to notice our unreliable perception due to our uninvited imagination.
Many commentators have suggested a connection between this prelude and Whistler or Turner’s painting. For example, Paul Roberts suggests Whistler’s Nocturne in Silver and Blue: Battersea Reach and Turner’s Yacht Approaching the Coastas possible visual parallels for Brouillards.However, there is no evidence that confirms it was the composer’s intention to connect this prelude with any particular painting.
In this prelude, Debussy successfully communicates fog through several ways. First, the most important element is the bitonality. The prelude begins with the left hand with a tonal center of C and the right hand with a tonal center of D-flat. The semitone between C and D-flat certainly reminds us of a blurred image produced by an unfocused lens, equivalent to our vision in fog.
Secondly, Debussy changes the meter constantly, depriving the listener of something solid to hold on to. The anxiety produced by uncertainty reflects our experience in dense fog.
Another element the composer utilizes is an odd number of notes to generate an unsteady feel. For example, quintuplets are prevalent throughout the piece, including the opening measures. Odd numbers are harder to digest and execute because they cannot be symmetrically divided, which leads to a lack of balance.
Debussy also utilizes enharmonic equivalents to deceive our perception. For example, in one measure, the top staff shows six notes, but as the next measure reveals, those six notes actually represent only three different pitches (G-sharp-A-flat, C-sharp-D-flat, G-sharp-A-flat). It is equivalent to how our imagination leads us to misperception when our vision is not clear (e.g. mistaking a tree for a ghost). It could be alternatively understood as a representation of the blurred vision in fog.
Lastly, there is nothing more uncertain or ambiguous than to end a piece with a diminished triad as this prelude does. This unresolved ending certainly leaves the audience in an uncomfortable place, just like being in fog. Roberts suggests that Brouillards and the ensuing prelude Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves) are inseparable as the opening of Feuilles mortes actually provides what is equivalent to a resolution; the bass notes of the opening chords of Feuilles mortes are derived from the top notes of the closing triads of Brouillards (G-F). Just like fog, Brouillards dissolves into the next prelude.
Claude Debussy, II. Feuilles mortes, Préludes, 2e livre (1913)
As mentioned above, there is a thread that connects and blurs the boundary of Brouillards (Fog) and Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves). It does make sense, given the fact that we associate fog with autumn (the season of dead leaves). Although there is no evidence indicating that it was Debussy’s plan, another interesting connection between those two preludes is that both pieces consist of fifty-two measures.
The publisher Durand cites an identically titled volume of poems by Georges Turpin (1885-1952) as a possible source of the title.Meanwhile, Catherine Kautsky, the author of Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque, states that the prelude was probably named after a collection of poems written by Gabriel Mourey (1865-1943) who was a close friend of Debussy.
Feuilles mortes communicates the fleeting landscape of autumn mainly through the harmonic structure that changes constantly. The key signature suggesting either E major or C-sharp minor is not helpful here, given the numerous accidentals throughout the piece. The first example of the transient harmony is the very beginning; the prelude opens with a measure built on the octatonic scale (a scale built on alternating whole and half steps) OCT (0,1) B (C-sharp, D-sharp, E, F-sharp, G, A, A-sharp, B-sharp) while the second measure is built on the octatonic scale OCT (1,2) A (C-sharp, D, E, F, G, G-sharp, A-sharp, B). The third measure goes back to OCT (0,1) B while the fourth measure adopts OCT (1,2) A, which demonstrates that the two different octatonic scales are alternating in the first four measures. Debussy also uses a whole-tone scale to create a distinctive sound world.
The harmonic structure remains elusive throughout the prelude, capturing the nature of the fleeting landscapes that we see in autumn. E. Robert Schmitz, the author of The Piano Works of Claude Debussy, says “it would be a great mistake to try to find here a realistic description of ‘Dead Leaves,’ be it on a windy day or a quiet one”.However, one cannot but “hear” and “see” many forms of dead leaves in this prelude, especially leaves slowly falling from a tree and whirling leaves. Again Debussy successfully melts the sound and visual worlds to depict the fleeting autumn landscape.
If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:
Paul Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996) , 269.
Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 268.
Claude Debussy, Préludes, 1er et 2e livres, ed. Roy Howat and Claude Helffer (Paris: Éditions Durand, 2007), IV.
Catherine Kautsky, Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) , 161.
E. Robert Schmitz, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1966) , 164.