Debussy - Préludes

All the piano greats completed a set of Preludes for solo piano, but why is Debussy's that little bit different?

Preludes - why are they so important to piano composers? All the legends of the piano completed their own set, including Bach (the original and, some say, the best), Chopin and Rachmaninov, so there must've been something in it, right? Well, Debussy obviously agreed - but that didn't stop him putting his own stamp on the genre.

But where Bach and Chopin used their Preludes as something of a technical exercise, composing one for each musical key, Debussy's were free-form and full of his signature expressive indulgences. Each one has a different descriptive title that gives clues about what was going through the composer's mind when he was writing them, from Shakespearean dances to underwater cathedrals.

Perhaps the most notable is La fille aux cheveux de lin (otherwise known as The Girl With The Flaxen Hair), which Debussy originally conceived as a song written especially for a soprano with (unsurprisingly) flaxen-coloured hair. But with twelve preludes to enjoy in whatever order you like - though performers often choose to play them in the order they were composed in - you can't go wrong.

And if you really want to read deeply into them, then the literary quotations from Baudelaire J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan ('Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir' and 'Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses' respectively) will keep you occupied for much longer than the pieces' duration.

View them as an endlessly interchangeable box of chocolates - you can dip in and out, have one or two at a time, or you can really indulge and binge on all 12 without feeling too guilty about it.