The Ghost of Debussy’s “Des pas sur la neige” in Morton Feldman’s Final Work

Four ascending notes, repeated with hypnotic persistence amid a soundscape of restlessly shifting harmony and color…This is what we hear in the atmospheric Des pas sur la neige (“Footprints in the Snow”), the sixth piece from Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes. Written in 1909, this music seems to mirror the dreamy winter scenes of Impressionist painters like Claude Monet- paintings in which recognizable landscapes begin to blur into abstractions of color and light.

Here is a performance by Jean-Yves Thibaudet:

Interestingly, those persistent four notes which step their way through Des pas sur la neige are quoted in Morton Feldman’s final work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987). The motive emerges, disappears, and then reemerges throughout the quiet, hour and fifteen minute-long work. As with Debussy’s Prélude, listening to Feldman’s music feels like entering a gradually-unfolding dream. Debussy’s motive seems to bubble up from the depths of some vast, musical subconscious.

These two pieces are inextricably and mysteriously linked. It’s interesting to consider the significance of this kind of reference. How and why did Debussy’s motive slip into Feldman’s piece during the composition process?

Recordings

  • Debussy: Complete Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1, Jean-Yves Thibaudet iTunes
  • Feldman: Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Aleck Karis, Curtis Macomber, Danielle Farina iTunes

Photograph: Claude Monet’s “Snow at Argenteuil”

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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