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Preludes & Interludes

Préludes and Interludes is a collaboration between pianist Graham Caskie, artist Brian Dunce and composer Stephen Goss. Brian Dunce has painted a performance installation of large canvases inspired by Debussy’s Préludes, Premier Livre to accompany recitals given by Graham Caskie. Stephen Goss’s Interludes, to be performed in amongst the Préludes, complement and contrast with both Brian Dunce’s paintings and Debussy’s music. Rather than being designed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Debussy’s timeless masterpieces, the paintings and interludes are intended to act more like footnotes or asides, whose function is to pay fleeting homage.


In Brian Dunce’s performance installation, the canvases themselves form the structure in a series of self-supporting units. Each canvas is six feet high and then either two feet or four feet wide. The entire installation is six feet high and fifty-four feet wide (1.83 m x 16.47 m). The paintings are reproduced to scale between pages 7 and 13 of this booklet. Brian Dunce’s Debussy: Préludes, Premier Livre (2007) was commissioned by the 2007 Guildford International Music Festival with funds from Arts Council England. Stephen Goss’s Interludes (2008) was commissioned and funded by the R C Sherriff Trust. The first complete performance of Préludes and Interludes was given at Riverhouse Barn, Walton-on-Thames, 2008.

Influences and References

An introduction by artist Brian Dunce


Debussy’s music has always been closely associated with painting. However, the orbit of his influences and references extends far beyond the visual arts into literature, mythology and Far Eastern culture, as well as into children’s stories, the circus and popular music. Brian’s paintings unveil some of the sources that lie embedded in Debussy’s Préludes and offer some additional references of their own. Many of the starting points for making the paintings came from looking at the same visual sources which Debussy is thought to have admired:


[2] Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Dephi): There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that this prélude embodied Debussy’s impressions of a relief stone carving of dancers from the first century BC that was exhibited in the Louvre.


[3] Voiles (Sails or Veils): Brian has chosen to depict the veils of Loïe Fuller, an American dancer much admired by Debussy.


[4] Le vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain): is an evocation of landscape, and

continuing the theme of movement, Brian has glued string in swirls to the canvas on

which is a faintly described image of Cézanne’s continuing motif of Mont Ste-Victoire.


[5] Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and scents turn on the evening air): is a line from Baudelaire’s Harmonie du Soir, a poem which explores synesthesia.


[8] Les collines d’Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri): Brian had no visual information about this prélude but read that Debussy had seen a picture on a wine label which might have inspired the work. He plays his own visual joke by including a reference to the Titian painting Bacchus and Ariadne from the National Gallery, London.


[11] Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow): Brian has treated this prélude as a desolate snow scene.


[12] Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest (What the West Wind saw): takes its title from a story by Hans Christian Anderson, The Garden of Paradise. Debussy was a great admirer of illustrated books from England and gave many to his young daughter. Brian’s painting is also a portrait of Debussy (see inside cover).


[13] La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair): shares its title with a poem by Leconte de Lisle but is closer in character to Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper. The girl is pictured in Brian’s painting but we can’t see her face, she is distant and remote. The landscape in the painting suggests Renoir’s The Gust of Wind.


[17] La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade): refers to Le Mezzetin, a painting by Watteau.


[19] La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance): is derived from an illustration by Arthur Rackham for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


[20] Minstrels (Minstrels): may have been seen by Debussy in Eastbourne while he was working on La Mer. In his painting, Brian suggests that they could have been a ragtime group of street musicians.


[21] La cathédrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral): For Brian, this was the major work in the group so he made it the largest. The music is based on an ancient Breton myth of the sea engulfing a cathedral which reappears at dawn.



Notes on ‘Interludes’

by Stephen Goss


My Interludes draw on many of these references: highlighting some, hinting at others. Early in our discussions about the collaboration, Graham requested that I make the most of the Moorish, Andalusian flavour of Debussy’s music. He also suggested that my version of Des pas sur la neige should become a focal point in the whole programme. We had already decided with Brian that the programme would finish with La cathédrale engloutie.


Préludes and Interludes opens with The Gust of Wind [1] which tempers Debussy’s Le vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest with the gentle summer breeze of Renoir’s The Gust of Wind.


I am that merry wanderer of the night [6] is the title of the Arthur Rackham illustration that Debussy used as a source for La danse de Puck.


The two ‘Spanish’ interludes, Colloque Sentimental [7] and Le Mezzetin [10] relate to Brian’s La sérénade interrompue canvas, which in turn, is based on Watteau’s painting Le Mezzetin. Watteau was a master of tragic irony – the pathetic guitar player in this painting is faintly absurd in his richly coloured Commedia dell’Arte costume, yet we are left in no doubt that the hopelessness of his love (symbolized by the cold stone statue facing away from him) has the intense pain of the loss of life itself.


The musical material for my Colloque Sentimental interlude comes from Debussy’s La Puerto del Vino (from Préludes, Deuxième Livre) and the Le Mezzetin interlude makes subtle references to Bizet’s Carmen. In his book Images, the Piano Music of Claude Debussy, Paul Roberts conjectures that La fille aux cheveux de lin might have been inspired, at least in part, by Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper. “Debussy, whose identification with exotic, faraway scenes is manifested throughout the Préludes, would have found Wordsworth’s evocation of the girl’s solitary song, ‘Breaking the silence of the seas / Among the farthest Hebrides’ deeply satisfying”. The Solitary Reaper is a drastically stylised poem. Wordsworth simplifies it by omitting particularities. The girl is seen only in the bold outline of essential gesture. In the interlude Breaking the silence of the seas [9], I took Wordsworth’s poem as my starting point and also borrowed and adapted material from the Pastorale movement of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp to recreate the pastoral atmosphere of Brian’s La fille aux cheveux de lin painting.


The next three interludes form a triptych. Baudelaire’s pantoun Harmonie du Soir was the source for Debussy’s mysterious prélude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. Debussy’s music suggests the faded, half-grasped memory of a popular waltz, which comes and goes throughout the piece. In Scented Waltz [14], I wanted to reassemble Debussy’s elusive dance and place it firmly in the foreground. The Hatter [15] brings Minstrels forward to the time of Miles Davis – who is pictured in Brian’s Minstrels canvas. Nocturne in Blue and Silver [16] is based on the Voiles prélude, but also extends the Miles Davis connection with a veiled reference to Bill Evans’s Blue in Green from Davis’s Kind of Blue album.


Frozen Lake (Nederland, Colorado) [18] was the first piece in the set that I completed. It draws on the musical material and desolate atmosphere of Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige to portray the bleak emptiness and solitude of the Rocky Mountains.


Stephen Goss © 2008