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?
Photograph: Claude Monet’s “Snow at Argenteuil”