are two sets of pieces for solo piano
. They are divided into two separate livres
, or books, of twelve preludes
each. Unlike previous cycles of twenty-four preludes, like that of Chopin
, Debussy's do not follow a set pattern of key signatures
, but instead move arbitrarily through the possible keys, without even using five of them. The first book was written between December 1909 and February 1910, and the second between 1911 and April 1913.
- Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi): Lent et grave
- Voiles (Veils or sails): Modéré
- Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind on the Plain): Animé
- «Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir» (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air): Modéré
- Les collines d'Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri): Très modéré
- Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow): Triste et lent
- Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West Wind has seen): Animé et tumultueux
- La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair): Très calme et doucement expressif
- La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade): Modérément animé
- La cathédrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral): Profondément calme
- La danse de Puck (Puck's Dance): Capricieux et léger
- Minstrels: Modéré
- Brouillards (Mists): Modéré
- Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves): Lent et mélancolique
- La Puerta del Vino (The Wine Gate): Mouvement de Habanera
- «Les Fées sont d'exquises danseuses» ("Fairies are exquisite dancers"): Rapide et léger
- Bruyères (Heather): Calme
- ''Général Lavine - eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk
- La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences): Lent
- Ondine (Undine): Scherzando
- Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick): Grave
- Canope (Canopic jar): Très calme et doucement triste
- Les tierces alternées (Alternating Thirds): Modérément animé
- Feux d'artifice (Fireworks): Modérément animé
Debussy never intended the pieces to be performed in a series; he thought of them as individual works. The titles were given by the composer to create images or sensory associations for the listener. Several are poetically vague: for example, the meaning of Voiles, the title of the second prelude of the first book, is ambiguous, since the noun's gender is unknown (in French, voiles can mean either "veils" or "sails" depending on gender). The titles are written at the end of each movement, allowing the performer to discover impressions for himself, without being guided by Debussy's own thoughts. This works less well now, as the Preludes have grounded themselves in popular culture.
The pieces' moods vary wildly, from the "profound calm" of La cathédrale engloutie to the tumultuous, unrestrained virtuosity of Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest, and from the mysterious Brouillards, to the explosive Feux d'artifice.
The most famous of the preludes are both from the first book; La fille aux cheveux de lin is a brief but harmonically complex Pre-Raphaelite expression of beauty. La cathédrale engloutie alludes to the legend of the sunken city of Ys in which the cathedral was allowed to rise once a day as a reminder of the glorious city that was lost, then become submerged again. Debussy's composition reflects this well: one can almost hear monks chanting, and the great bells tolling throughout the piece.