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Composed: 1909-1913; 2001-2006
Length: c. 18 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crotales, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere of the arrangements)

The Douze Préludes, Book 1, and Douze Préludes, Book 2, were composed and published between 1909 and 1913. The first performances were shared by Debussy and the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943), who possessed an exceptional technique and was a champion of new music in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Debussy’s creative touch, especially with his piano music, emphasized the new synthesis of poetry, the visual arts, and music that characterized the end of the 19th century. He was aware of the piano’s limitations and it was generally agreed that his performance style resembled no other, that it had an orchestral quality, and that Debussy was determined not to treat the piano as it had been treated in the past. He had enormous confidence in the capacity of the piano and placed extensive demands on the performer and the instrument. Virtuosity by itself was removed from Debussy’s idea of music. Technique and thorough musicianship – strong knowledge of counterpoint, harmony, melody, rhythm, time, tempo, and pedaling – were essential.

Debussy was intrigued with the accord that exists between nature and imagination, and the Preludes resemble an artist’s sketchbook filled with contrasting, though associative, ideas providing insight into the composer’s imagination. Perhaps Debussy considered the preludes of Bach and Chopin when he conceived the idea for his set. He assigned each Prelude a programmatic title placed at the conclusion of each piece. The placement gives less importance to the literary description, and many of the titles are perplexing and the associations often inconsequential, but they are a valuable guide into Debussy’s thoughts and imagination. The titles are often merely symbolic, not to be taken literally, and are certainly not necessary for enjoyment or appreciation. The musical construction of each Prelude is well-defined, though rhapsodic by nature.

“Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks)

Fireworks in France are associated with the celebrations of July 14th, known in the United States as Bastille Day. There are subtle hints of the “Marseillaise” hidden among the cascading pianistic fireworks defined by a rhapsodic sense of harmony and color.

“Bruyères” (Heather)

A pastoral scene of the moors in the Scottish highlands.

“Le vent dans la plaine” (The wind in the plain)

A definite association for this title is not known.

“La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair)

The French poet Leconte de Lisle provided Debussy's title for this calmly lyrical prelude in one of his Chansons écossaises.

— Lynne S. Mazza has also annotated programs for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic, among other organizations

Colin Matthews was born in London in 1946. He studied music at the Universities of Nottingham, and Sussex, where he also taught, and he subsequently worked with Britten in Aldeburgh from 1972-1976, and with Imogen Holst. He collaborated with Deryck Cooke for many years on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Since the early 1970s his music, ranging from solo piano music through three string quartets and many ensemble and orchestral works, has been played worldwide, with recordings on Unicorn, Collins Classics, Deutsche Grammophon/Decca, and NMC. From 1992-1999 he was Associate Composer with the London Symphony Orchestra, writing, among other works, a Cello Concerto for Rostropovich. He is currently Composer-in-Association with the Hallé Orchestra, for whom he made his orchestrations of Debussy’s 24 Preludes. Many of the orchestrations have been recorded by the orchestra under Mark Elder, as well as by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

In orchestrating the Preludes (2001-2006), Matthews did not feel compelled to work strictly within Debussy’s text. For example, he adds a development section to “Le vent dans la plaine” and connects it to “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” which is to be played much more slowly than the piano original. Matthews has written the following note about the Postlude:

“This afterword to the Preludes is part portrait of Debussy – in the essays which he wrote in the 1900s ‘Monsieur Croche’ represents Debussy’s alter ego – part an expression of exuberance and reflection at having completed the project. Although I always intended to write a postlude, I waited until I had finished the orchestration of all 24 before starting it, and at that point the only logical thing to do seemed to be to write a piano piece of my own and then transcribe it. It comes much closer to Debussy’s own style than I had intended or expected – although the harmony goes a little beyond Debussy – and, appropriately, is much the same length as many of the Preludes. It was written as a gift for and a ‘thank you’ to Mark Elder and the Hallé, and is respectfully dedicated ‘à la mémoire d’un musicien français’.”