[Pt. IV Proj.2] – Moving into the Twentieth Century – Project 2- New harmonic fields – Research Point 4.3- Préludes II: Voiles, Whole- tone scale.

[Pt. IV Proj.2] Research Point 4.3- Preludes II: Voiles, Whole-tone mode. Debussy wrote a Prélude, also in his first book, II: Voiles, almost entirely in a single whole-tone mode, save for a few localised chromatic passing notes and a short pentatonic section. This must have sounded extraordinary even in 1910 when the new sounds of Modernism were beginning to emerge. Listen to this composition while reading the score. What stands out to you about this composition? Make a few notes in your learning log. 


The word ‘Voiles’ translates as sails or veils. Debussy used the title, which was placed at the end of the Prélude, as a mere visual description of the music. There is something very shimmery and flighty about this mysterious sound, even though it is played over a very distinct and insistent staccato bass. The left hand is very abrupt and assertive, with bursts of right hand scalic figures made up of the whole-tone scale. The result never feels ‘heavy’ nor too melancholy, but instead mysterious and quite contemplative. There is a very wide gap between the bass notes and the top melody, the piano covering a very wide range. I find both the jarring accented rhythm in the bass and the left hand bursts of melody reminiscent of Japanese Haikus. Like little splashes of sound and bursts of energy. I think it is a very powerful way of structuring music in an unconventional way. Like a series of ‘note events.’ Even without the usual major/minor harmonic functions it still feels like the piece is progressing forward and moving both harmonically and tonally toward a climaxing section with parallel chords in the bass and an ostinato pattern in the left-hand culminating in a key change at bar 42 to an Eb minor pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale plays ‘en animant’ energetic glissandos up the keys. I’m imagining it illustrating the sound of sails in the wind. The last two bars of this 6-bar section play a figure which reminds me of blues music or early spirituals. The key change achieves a contrasting section which is simultaneously also very complementing . It changes the flavour ever so slightly, but blends back into the whole-tone scale quite seamlessly. It feels very natural. Debussy was very keen to both mimic and describe nature, so I am sure this was intentional. After the key change the more nebulous and mysterious whole-one mode returns again. The time signature of 2/4 remains, and the dynamics are very soft with a very gentle expression. A few more glissando are added increasing the sense of movement and urgency further until the end where the whole piece slowly ebbs out.