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Top 10 piano works by Claude Debussy

Editorial Staff

Written by Nancy Berman

No music better invokes smudged and slightly blurry landscapes of pastel flowers shimmering in the rain, smoky Parisian cafés, beautiful women and moonlit mystery than that of Claude Debussy.

To say that Debussy revolutionized piano music would be an understatement. He broke the rules of Western harmony, and absorbed the music of the distant past, of the Far and Middle East, of Russia, Spain and the United States, to create the epitome of modern, French music.

To celebrate this musical impressionist who set the course for the 20th century, voilà: a playlist of his top 10 piano pieces, ranging from the sublime to the somewhat silly, displayed in the list below.

1. 'Clair de lune'

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight 
— Paul Verlaine

Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine’s poem provided the inspiration for Clair de lune, Debussy’s best-loved piano work. The third movement of his Suite Bergamasque (composed in 1890), "Clair de lune" epitomizes the understated, melancholic beauty of Debussy’s style.

2. 'Arabesque No. 1'

The spiraling melodies and gracefully interlocking lines of Debussy’s "Arabesque No. 1" (from Deux Arabesques, 1890-91) bring to mind the swirling designs of Art Nouveau as well as the Middle-Eastern art that fascinated French artists and collectors in the late 19th century.

3. 'Reflets dans l'eau'

From Monet to Pissarro, the impressionist painters were obsessed with the way light — be it from the sun, the moon, or a streetlamp — reflected on the surface of water. Following in the great painters’ footsteps, Debussy exploited the piano’s ability to create both the rippling effect of water, and its stillness, in "Reflets dans l’eau" from his first set of Images (1904-05).

4. 'Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut'

In "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut," from his second set of Images (1907), Debussy briefly imitates the sound of the Javanese gamelan orchestra, which he heard at the 1889 and 1900 Paris World Fairs. Along with Spanish, Russian, and medieval music, Javanese music helped him solidify his own experiments in escaping “the tyranny of the tonic and the dominant.” In other words, his openness to music from other times and places helped him to create an entirely new, modernist musical language.

5. 'Golliwog's Cakewalk'

Dedicated to his three-year-old daughter, affectionately known as Chou-Chou, Debussy's Children’s Corner (1908) is a collection of six little pieces evocative of childhood. The last piece, "Golliwog’s Cakewalk," alludes to African-American minstrelsy and ragtime; however in the middle section careful listeners will catch the rather incongruent love-death motif from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde.

6. 'Pagodes'

"Pagodes" is the first of the three musical tableaux that make up Estampes (1903). Evocative of the mysterious Orient that attracted so many artists at the turn of the century, this picturesque work features the pentatonic scale, set against a lush, richly European background.

7. 'Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir'

Debussy’s two books of Préludes are a treasure trove of musical moods and images. From exuberance to bleakness via eccentricity and mischief, the preludes are arguably the ne plus ultra of Debussy’s piano music. In “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (1910), from Book I, Debussy explores the langorous vertigo of love described by Charles Baudelaire in his poem Harmonie du soir.

8. 'Des pas sur la neige'

In "Des pas sur la neige" (1909), also from Book I of Préludes, the inherent loneliness of the human condition is reflected in the desolate landscape of winter.

9. Toccata from Pour le piano

Debussy composed Pour le piano in 1901. The titles of the three movements — Prélude, Sarabande, and Toccata — refer to the dance suites popular during the 17th century (think Bach), but the content is pure, modern Debussy. The Toccata is particularly virtuosic.

10. 'Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.'

In "Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.," from Book II of Préludes, Debussy pays homage to the main character of Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. The pompous opening citation of “God Save our Gracious Queen” soon unravels into a light comic silliness that just can’t be contained despite repeated attempts at sanctimony.

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