Each of Debussy's Préludes, Book I (1907-1910) is a short but substantial work that conveys a particular mood or impression suggested by its title. Still, as musicologist Rollo Myers notes, "the pictorial element [is not] unduly stressed if stressed at all; these Préludes are pure music." In accordance with the composer's practice of assigning a title only after the completion of a work, the titles of the Préludes are placed at the foot of each, rather than at the head. The Préludes represent the pinnacle of Debussy's keyboard art; each may be rightly regarded as a miniature masterpiece.
1. Danseuses de Delphes (Delphic Dancers): This is a slow, hypnotic, stately sarabande that utilizes multiple layers of parallel chords in unusual five-bar groupings.
2. Voiles (Sails): Whole-tone scales and pentatonic harmonies provide the musical substance of this mysterious and evocative tone poem. The spirit and character of this work recall "Jeux de vagues" (Play of waves), the second movement of La mer (1903-1905).
3. Le vent dans la plaine (Wind on the Plain): Rapid figuration depicts the whirling winds, twice interrupted by sudden chordal outbursts. Much of the work's impact derives from the extreme, effective economy of its material.
4. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mix in the Evening Air): The title of this Prélude was taken from Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, the inspiration for this slow, waltz-like nocturne. The work makes active use of three themes, all in the same key, demanding the utmost sensitivity and imagination from the pianist.
5. Les collines d'Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri): This is a lively scherzo in tarantella rhythm, with a slower central section in imitation of Italian folk song. The piano writing is particularly colorful and brilliantly effective.
6. Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow): Debussy depicts a barren winter snowscape with a plaintive, harmonically static dirge. The slow, sustained legato underpins the powerfully hypnotic atmosphere.
7. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West Wind Saw): Rapid, sweeping arpeggios, fast alternating chord passages, and thundering tremolos characterize this brilliant, virtuosic showpiece. It is virtually an etude, fiercely aggressive and calling upon the full resources of the pianist.
8. La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with Flaxen Hair): The title of this, one of the most familiar of the Préludes, comes from Leconte de Lisle's Scottish Song. Debussy's use of modality lends an archaic air to this charming, delicate work.
9. La sérénade interrompue (The Interrupted Serenade): A Spaniard wooing his sweetheart with the sounds of his voice and his guitar is thwarted by several noisy interruptions. Debussy effectively recreates a Spanish-inflected guitar sound on the keyboard, treating the interruptions with wry humor.
10. La cathédral engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral): Debussy effects a striking musical depiction of the mythical submerged cathedral of Ys with "archaicisms" like modality and parallel harmonies. The work's rhythmic stasis, combined with its massive sonorities, creates an overwhelming sense of awe and grandeur.
11. La danse de Puck (The Dance of Puck): Shakespeare's Puck is depicted here as a witty and capricious elf. Light, rapid figurations and sudden shifts of register and dynamics require an exceptional degree of pianistic control.
12. Minstrels (Minstrels): The last of the Préludes from Book I is a sardonic parody of the music heard in turn-of-the-century music halls. Crisp rhythms and "popular" harmonies punctuated by sharp dissonance anticipate elements in the music of Stravinsky and Poulenc.