In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to be taking a quick look at Debussy’s Deux Arabesques. These two arabesques are short and simple in format, but enduringly popular and gorgeous (particularly the first one).
Basic info for Deux arabesques
Debussy’s Deux arabesques (L.66) was composed relatively early in Debussy’s career, between 1888 and 1891. They’re written for solo piano.
The first arabesque especially gives us a feel for Debussy’s blossoming impressionistic style of music. He’s able to capture scenes of nature in a delicate, non-obvious way based more on feel than storytelling.
The first arabesque is the most famous, written in the key of E major. It’s highly ornamental (like all arabesques), and has some roots in Bach’s counterpoint style.
The second arabesque is fun and lively, and just as colorful as the first – though lesser known. It’s jovial and decorative and quite different in spirit than the first arabesque.
Henle marks them at a level 4 difficulty, which is medium by their metrics – but they’re a grade 10 level through the RCM, and in general you need to be a competent piano player to tackle these.
Deux arabesques in Pop culture
Like all famous classical compositions, the first arabesque is all over pop culture. Pop artists like Alicia Keys have sampled it, it’s been on TV shows such as Skins, and even video games like Final Fantasy V.
- Andantino con moto
- Allegretto scherzando
These are the names/tempo markings for each arabesque. “Andantino con moto” is like a quick walk with motion, and “allegretto scherzando” is fairly quick and playful.
The classification of “arabesque” is a very open-ended musical style. Basically the only qualification of an arabesque is that it’s ornamental. It’s based on Turkish arabesques which are ornamental, but otherwise bear zero resemblance to Turkish music. Arabesques are also usually fairly free-form.
Arabesque no. 1: andantino con moto
Both Arabesques are in the simple ABA format – which is a 2-part form with a return to the original material (part A) at the end.
The intention Debussy had with this arabesque is to create a calm and serene mood with the gently rolling left hand and cascading right hand notes. He wanted to paint a mood, not a clearly defined picture.
We start in the key of E major. The introduction and first theme of Arabesque no. 1 use a variety of chord patterns, mainly in the first inversion (one step past root position) – a writing style common to Impressionist composers. It’s very atmospheric with a rolling left-hand pattern fairly common to Debussy.
This left hand pattern is particularly challenging when matched up with the right hand, since it involves a technique called polyrhythm – both hands playing a different rhythm. In this case it’s 3 against two – a set of triplets against two eighth notes.
This three-against-two section is almost counterpoint in texture (like Bach) – a friend of Debussy said this section has “two voices progression in alternation and united as a single melody” (Schmitz).
The middle section is shorter and more poetic – less ambling. It’s in the key of A major, starting with (E-D-E-C#) between measures 29-46, and going through some modulations and key changes.
Of this section, Schmitz said “It is rich in abandon, swaying impulses, tenderness, and fantasy”.
Then we see a recapitulation of the A section which has a higher middle section.
We can hear this piece as a transition between the Romantic and Impressionist periods because of its shorter form – later Romantic music tended to be shorter (like music today), and early Impressionist music used dissonance and different scales beyond the standard major and minor.
Instead of telling a story, Impressionist music sought to create an atmosphere – and that’s what you hear with these arabesques.
Arabesque no. 2: allegretto scherzando
The second arabesque is in the key of G major, and it’s quicker and livelier than the first (which you can see indicated in the tempo).
This arabesque is not nearly as well-known, and perhaps isn’t as innovative – but it’s still a lot of fun. Like the first, it’s also in ABA format.
We have some long-held left-hand chord and playful right hand trills. Like the first arabesque, there are a bunch of modulations and key changes.
The main rhythmic motive in the A section is the triplet-sixteenth-plus-eighth rhythm, which is fairly constant in the right hand.
The middle section is in the key of C major. Our right hand rhythm changes, and there’s a sequence of rising thirds. The whole effect is bubbly and childlike – very lighthearted (which many of us forget that Debussy was excellent at conveying).
Debussy wrote, “I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters—who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music,” he blusters in his antagonistic style. But then he concludes, revealingly, “Bach alone has an idea of the truth.”
Performer: Patrizia Prati