Music and Vision homepage



TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

8. Debussy's
Prelude and Fugue
for organ


It will come as a surprise to many people that Debussy wrote a Prelude and Fugue for organ - a work of his maturity too - but there it is, the title page proudly announcing 'par Claude Debussy, Organiste Français'. It would appear that he had intended writing a set of at least three similar pieces, all based on old French baroque forms, for at the end of the manuscript he has pencilled: 'No. 2 - Toccata, Aria and Passacaglia? No. 3 - Prelude, Chaconne, Canon and Chorale?' If death had not intervened, what amazing new facets of this chameleonic composer would we not have seen? Alas! all that survives is this solitary Prelude and Fugue.

From the start it is clear that Debussy is not going to model himself on J. S. Bach, or anyone else for that matter. In the Prelude he ingeniously intertwines five (maybe more - who can tell?) French folk songs into the texture over a C-flat pedal note. The contrasting middle section - also over a C-flat pedal - introduces new ideas in the form of 'The Marseillaise', 'Von Himmel Hoch', 'Bobby Shafto' and 'Le Drapeau Belge'. Was Debussy trying to tell us something here? - the effect is, to say the least, unsettling. Even more singular is the Fugue, whose subject will be instantly recognised as the tune of 'Clair de Lune' squared up and expanded. There is a great deal of unorthodox fugal-writing, including copious parallel 5ths and octaves, but I think that we must assume that Debussy was doing this deliberately. (It has to be admitted that Debussy's knowledge of fugal method seems to have been rather hazy, a fact borne out by some pencilled marginalia on his manuscript: '? Middle entries -? Double Counterpoint -? Stretto: check up on…')

After the final entry of the exposition, he seems to lose interest in the fugue altogether and we are thrust into the impressionistic sound-world of his piano pieces: 'Pagodes' makes a brief appearance, followed by 'Soirée dans Grenade' and a virtual replay of 'Minstrels', and this extraordinary piece reaches its conclusion with the final cadence of 'Golliwog's Cakewalk'. Perhaps the biggest disappointment - certainly for organists - is the organ writing, and particularly Debussy's limited use of the pedal-board. In fact he uses only one note (the C-flat) throughout the Prelude and doesn't involve the pedals at all in the Fugue until the final chord (C-flat major). One cannot help wondering whether his heart was fully in the work.


Copyright © 13 January 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


 << Music & Vision homepage            Delius's 'Evening Canticles' >>