Though some people argue that Debussy didn’t mean for all the preludes to be performed in one sitting, the evidence – the actual music – suggests otherwise; this isn’t the Bachian way of ordering your preludes by key. Songs begin logically where others left off, key-wise, but there’s more, like the contrast of the “animated” “Le vent dans la plaine” comes after the comparatively motionless (not an insult; more on that later) “Voiles” or the surging summer storm of “Ce qu’a vu vent d’Ouest” after the desolate wintry “Des pas sur la neige,” to say nothing of how the calmest and brightest melody of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” follows afterwards. Then, there’s the fact that “La fille aux cheveux” is from a girl’s perspective (singing out the window, as musicals would have me believe girls do) and the following “La serenade interrompue” is the story of a boy trying to woo a girl; possibly the same one. Finally, there’s the grander narrative of how the first book of preludes begins with one of its most introverted and introspective songs (“Danseuses de Delphes”) and ends with its most extraverted and theatrical (“Minstrels”). (The second book’s opener and closer are parallel in this regard.)
But regardless of Debussy’s attention to structure and how he follows in the tradition of his romantic forefathers to flesh out preludes into standalone songs (that is to say, not preludes at all), I’m not a fan of all the songs here. For example, there isn’t much to say about “Danseuses de Delphes” except how the melody is accented with every second note to give the impression of a slow dance. And though I’m a huge fan of the melody of “Voiles” and how it’s constantly trying to tug away from the left hand, grounding it with the same note over and over (which lends more credence to its translated title, “Sails,” than the other alternative, “Veils”), a lot of midsection of the song feels derivative of “Lotus Land” by Cyril Scott (a Romantic composer often (hyperbolically) dubbed “the English Debussy”) published four years earlier, including phrasing, the sweeping chords, and the Eastern-tinged staccato-octave melody.
But the rest of this collection is good stuff, often evocative – as Debussy’s music often/always is – of the places, people, seasons and inspiring literature as seen in the titles: the trilled melody that powers “Le vent dans la plaine” sonically capturing wind; the softer parts of “Les collines d’Anacapri” like lying down on the top of those hills and skygazing and the faster parts, like dancing down those hills with your arms spread like a damned fool; the fortissimo playing of “Ce qu’a vu vent d’Ouest” and “La cathedrale engloutie” representing the wind and church bells, respectively; “La danse de Puck” soundtracking the main action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 3 minutes and change; the main staccato melody of “Minstrels” that’s supposed to sound like the best imitation of a banjo and how the song constantly shifts, as if you’re witnessing a live minstrel show.
Though “La fille aux cheveux de lin” is the collection’s most commonly performed song (probably because it has the most direct melody), my favorite of the bunch and the finest example of Debussy’s transportative abilities is the following “La serenade interrompue.” Here, a gentleman caller – armed with a guitar – goes to the girl’s window and attempts to serenade her and she rebuffs him – constantly (the first instance is at the 0:50 mark, where sudden fortissimo chords are employed and the melody has to begin again).