Debussy’s elusive footpath

Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow) is the sixth prelude out of the first volume of twelve Debussy preludes. As the volume is cyclical, rather than consisting of individual character pieces, Des pas sur la neige is at the heart of the work, a slow and serene movement between the jaunty Les collines d’Anacapri and the tempestuous Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest. Unlike the preludes before and after it, it isn’t tonally connected to any other prelude. In this way, it can be seen as an individual piece, bridging two “threads” in the narrative (in an earlier entry I discuss La serenade interrompue, the last prelude of a thread of three centered around F-sharp/G-flat, the first of which is Ce qua vu le vent d’Ouest). 

Unlike some other preludes, the title of Des pas sur la neige isn’t tied to any concrete concept (La dance de Puck or Minstrels)or place (Danseuses de Delphi or Les collines d’Anacapri). Rather, it is more generic and atmospheric. It’s up to the listener to decide whether the footprints are appearing in real time, or whether the music describes a footpath of an unknown and vanished character. But there is one question that is somewhat hard to avoid: where do the footprints lead? Given the generic title, we can only look for the answer in the music.

The recurring musical motif in this prelude is the first bar, D-E followed by E-F over D. Besides being centered around the interval of a second, the character of the motif is determined by its solid and subtly declamatory rhythm, something typical of Debussy. The motif stays the same throughout the prelude, without transposition or modulation: one can say that it stays in place. So where, then, is the footpath? I’d say that we can find it in the music written around the motif. On top of this basic musical building block, Debussy constructs fantastically varied harmonies, sometimes close to D minor (the key of the prelude), sometimes utterly far-fetched. But no matter how close or far the harmonies are, they all have the same tonal and motivic center. Regardless of how long the footpath is, its origin is always in the listener’s ears. Because of the many twists and turns of the journey, we get to see its origin in so many different ways, from so many different angles. In fact, sometimes its trajectory isn’t clear, as harmonies appear both above and below the middle register, where the core of the prelude is heard. Perhaps the journey is circular? Being at the center of the twelve preludes, a circular journey would make perfect symmetrical sense.  Given that the D-E-F motif remains unaltered throughout the course of the prelude, it is fitting that this is where the music would return to, as indeed it does. Debussy makes his way back to D minor in the most odd yet organic way. One gets the sense that it couldn’t have been otherwise. So where did the journey lead? Perhaps the composer was simply meandering in the snow. Or, maybe the journey leads from one section of the Preludes to the next. It is up to the listener to decide.

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