Claude Debussy began his three movement piano suite, Pour le piano, L. 95, around 1896 and completed it in 1903. There was a great deal of evolution in the composer's style during these years; his songs and orchestral writing had become wholly unique. It was not until this late date in his career (he was in his late thirties when he began this suite) that Debussy chose to incorporate the idiomatic challenges of the piano into his personal vocabulary. Looking at the whole of his output, with such piano masterpieces as Estampes and his etudes to his credit, it is difficult to imagine why it took so long for the composer to begin writing great piano music.
The suite's opening Prélude has a fast, savvy infectiousness, using the whole-tone scale and closing with a harp-like cadenza flourish that is unmistakably Debussyian. There is a broad palette of tone colors at work in the opening movement, featuring wide contrasts in register and breadth of chords. The opening builds from an initial, fast and steady line into a grand, overture-like section within the first minute. From there the opening material is then transformed into a totally different texture that heads to the same declamatory, ritornello-style moment. The differing colors and the general tone of this prelude suggest orchestral writing, which is what Debussy's hero, Chopin, abhorred in Beethoven's solo piano music. On the whole, the effect is both familiar and exotic, with shades of near-ancient music (such as Rameau's), and Javanese gamelan. Chopin comes to mind as well, though it is easy to imagine him taking exception to this comparison. It is undeniable, though, that the real power of French piano music is most readily identified with Debussy and Chopin's mature keyboard compositions. Both have a unique reverence for the pianist's position as a master of an exceptional instrument and a language that is specific to it.
In the second movement, Sarabande, is actually a revision of the "Sarabande" found in his Images (oubliées) of 1894. In it, the composer is having a very personal conversation through the piano. Like Debussy's D'un cahier d'esquisses, the keyboard is a vehicle for an extra-musical level of communication; the listener seems almost beside the point as the composer maintains a loving dialogue with music; there are no fireworks whatsoever. Alert listeners may regard this work as among the most intimate music for the keyboard. There is also a certain affinity for the piano music of the composer's friend, Erik Satie, whose 1887 Sarabande may well have inspired the tone of Debussy's own movement. Debussy may have been the superior craftsman, but Satie's pianistic ability to deliver the straight goods, the meaningful understatement, has always been under-appreciated for its influence on his good friend Claude.
The suite's finale is a Toccata that is poised and energetic, extroverted and graceful. Performers will find it daunting and enlightening. Demanding unflappable technique and poise, it concludes the suite admirably with the message that Debussy has mastered the piano's unique language on his own terms.