Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.”

This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into a mysterious, static sea. At moments, we float into the dreamy harmonic world of the pentatonic scale, as well as the sonic blur of chromaticism. There are echoes of the Balinese gamelan, which Debussy heard at the 1889 Paris ExpositionAmid the eerie stillness lurks an ominous, unrelenting B-flat in the bass. The final bars evaporate as a fleeting, ephemeral dream. 

Here is Krystian Zimerman’s live recording:


  • Debussy: Préludes / Book 1, L.117 – 2. Voiles, Krystian Zimerman Amazon

Featured Image: “Regatta at Argenteuil” (1874), Claude Monet 

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.

1 thought on “Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea”

  1. Wow, so lovely. I’ve been listening to the Debussy preludes for years but it so helps to have you highlight one, describe its unique character, then get to listen. Whole tone heaven.


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