Chapter X: The Floating World

Section 1 - Poetry
Section 2 - Music

Debussy's world of water encompasses every possible emotion from elation to despair. It's water in the form of ice that leads mostly clearly to hopelessness -- a world frozen in its terrors. The poem below, "Colloque Sentimental," which Debussy set as a song in 1904,  boasts no water, but it reminds me of the piano prelude, Des pas sur la beige, (Footsteps in the Snow) which is about the iciest form of water. This is one of the saddest texts Debussy ever set -- a love affair effaced so completely by one of the participants that not even its memory remains. The piano prelude seems to conjure a similar landscape of desolation on the keyboard.

Colloque sentimental (Sentimental dialogue) (1869)
By Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

In the deserted park, silent and vast,
Erewhile two shadowy glimmering figures passed.

Their lips were colorless, and dead their eyes;
Their words were scarce more audible than sighs.

In the deserted park, silent and vast,
Two spectres conjured up the buried past.

"Our ancient ecstasy, do you recall?"
"Why, pray, should I remember it at all?"

"Does still your heart at mention of me glow?
Do still you see my soul in slumber?" "No!"

"Ah, blessed, blissful days when our lips met!
You loved me so!" "Quite likely,—I forget."

"How sweet was hope, the sky how blue and fair!"
"The sky grew black, the hope became despair."

Thus walked they 'mid the frozen weeds, these dead,
And Night alone o'erheard the things they said.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux formes ont tout à l'heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leur lèvres sont molles,
Et l'on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

-- Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?
-- Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu'il m'en souvienne?

-- Ton cœur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?
Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? -- Non.

-- Ah! Les beaux jours de bonheur indicible
Où nous joignions nos bouches! -- C'est possible.

-- Qu'il était bleu, le ciel, et grand l'espoir!
-- L'espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,
Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.


Musical examples

Colloque Sentimental from Fêtes galantes, Book II, 1904 (Gérard Souzay, Dalton Baldwin)

Though we're speaking here of piano music and of water, and this piece fits neither category, the loneliness and desolation of both text and song in Colloque sentimental seem so close to that of Des pas sur la beige (Footsteps in the snow) that the music deserves inclusion.  As in the piano prelude, this music barely manages to trudge along; its lovers are irretrievably seperated and one doesn't even remember the other.  The singer speaks alone often, without aid of the piano's harmonies, and even when the piano becomes more active and the music more animated, the impression is of desperation rather than incipient joy.  This music is filled with melancholy and despair, it captures an essential aspect of Debussy's personal and musical world, and no lover of the piano music will feel him/herself in foreign territory.

Des pas sur la neige, Prelude no. 6, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)

This is one of the slowest and most sparsely scored of the preludes, and it is certainly among the bleakest of all Debussy's compositions.  The footsteps barely move and clearly do so without vigor or hope. The snatches of melody offer a small respite from despair, but all in all, the countryside Debussy envisions, "triste et glacé," (sad and frozen) is buried in ice and regrets.

Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes, 1903 (Walter Gieseking, 1953)

This is one of the simplest and delicate of the water pieces.  Its thinly-textured sixteenth notes run throughout, happily quoting two children's folk tunes, "Dodo l'infant, do" (Sleep, baby, sleep) and "Nous n'irons plus au bois"  (We don't go to the woods anymore"--because the weather is dreadful!). The middle section is tinged with melancholy, but naiveté and virtuosity triumph in the end, and though the piece isn't terribly difficult, its speed gives the impression of carefree celebration -- a lovely French ending to the Far Eastern and Spanish "prints" which precede it in Estampes.

Reflets dans l’eau from Images, Book I, 1905 (Gieseking, 1948)

This is the quintessential water music, filled with cascading waterfalls, rippling streams, raindrops, and splashes. It's pianistically satisfying to perform, filled with rapid and gently pedaled arpeggios that run the gamut of the keyboard, and it offers an impressionist landscape of melting harmonies and transparent colors to the listener.

Poissons d'or from Images, Book II, 1907 (Gieseking, 1937)

This fast, darting music is the perfect evocation of the goldfish in the Japanese wood panel which Debussy owned -- those goldfish gleam and are in constant motion. Debussy must have fixated on them with pleasure as he wrote this piece.

Les collines d'Anacapri, Prelude no. 5, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)

This prelude is performed less often than some others, probably because its pianistic figuration is more awkward, but surely not because it is less beautiful. It evokes the sunny landscape of the Italian island, Capri, and does so via quotations of songs that Debussy weaves in amidst his own ideas, taking his first 6 eighth notes and playing with their every possibility as motto, rhythm, and accompaniment.

Brouillards, Prelude no. 1, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

Fog is by its very nature unknown-- it breathes uncertainty, and that, of course, is Debussy's chosen bailiwick. Nothing could be more uncertain than the complete lack of a final cadence in this prelude or its clear ambivalence about whether to reside on the black or the white notes. The hollow octaves at either end of the keyboard that appear toward the middle of the piece and are echoed near the end epitomize the haunting sonority and mystery of the music.

Ondine, Prelude no. 8, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)Ondine's charms are manifold--she's a beautiful and seductive mermaid, and in this prelude, she seems still to be a capricious, possibly naughty child: the trouble that accrues from her marriage to a human is not yet imagined. 

The Snow is Dancing from Children's Corner, 1906-1908 (Gieseking, 1937)

Like the other music from Children's Corner, The Snow is Dancing  is more sophisticated and emotionally varied than a a children's corner might suggest.  This snow has mild tantrums and weeps as well as dances. Its ceaseless 16th notes suggest a very gentle snowfall rather than a stormy onslaught.

L'Isle joyeuse, 1904 (Gieseking, 1956)

This is a favorite, even among pianists who normally eschew Debussy. Its voyage to a joyous island may refer to the couples in Watteau's "Embarquement pour Cythère," and also to the voyage Debussy himself was about to take to the island of Jersey with his bride-to-be, Emma Bardac.  Even without references, the listener could hardly miss the ecstasy.  Tunes appear and combine in all manner, dancing with abandon.  Rarely does Debussy write music this fast or loud, and pianists always need to be reminded that the essential aesthetic is still colorative rather than bombastic:  it's hard not to  pound out one's joy at the climactic ending!