debussy, fairies, and mythology: musical imagery in three préludes for piano

similar to what i did last year, i thought that for today’s all that class post, i would share some snippets of knowledge from an essay i wrote in march this year. once again, the featured composer for my paper was debussy… because i love his music so much and i think i just get really lucky with him (writing about him i get A+ papers, playing him… i guess i’m successful too?).

so yes, my paper is focused on debussy, fairies, and mythology, and how he uses musical imagery in three carefully selected préludes for piano. all the information is based on personal analyses, either mine or other musical scholars. a little background on the pieces – this is all in my introductory paragraph, but i’ll summarize it for you here.

basically, debussy had a daughter (chou-chou) who was fascinated with fairytales like any little girl is, and she had an illustration of a dancing fairy in her room[1]. debussy was captivated by the amount of detail in the art and composed some pieces inspired by the artist’s (named arthur rackham) work. and now, my thesis:

In this paper, I will discuss how Debussy used musical imagery devices, such as recurring motifs, dotted rhythms, and circular melodic figures, to evoke the stories of fairies and a water nymph in “La Danse de Puck”, “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses”, and “Ondine”, contributing to the characteristics of Impressionist music and to Debussy’s personal compositional style.


la danse de puck (puck’s dance)

Puck – “Lord what fools these mortals be” (Artist: Arthur Rackham)

puck is the impish, troublemaking sprite from william shakespeare’s a midsummer night’s dream. debussy shares with listeners the character and story of puck with the following techniques:

  • captures the sprite’s capricious & lighthearted nature with a dance-like dotted motif, marked capricieux et léger (capricious & light)
  • the above is a recurring motif threaded throughout the piece
  • horn motif symbolizes fairy king oberon calling puck to complete a special task[2]
  • the above is also another recurring motif
  • tremolos, grace notes, trills, and dotted rhythms add to puck’s mischievous character


le fées sont d’exquises danseuses (the fairies are exquisite dancers)

The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers (Artist: Arthur Rackham)

this piece evokes the image of a fairy ball mentioned in the fairytale peter pan in kensington gardens, from which the illustration originated. again, debussy skillfully depicts the fairies in the following ways:

  • directions to play rapide et léger (rapidly and lightly) represent the fairies flying, their light-hearted charm, and their “flightiness of character”
  • staccati – fairies are quite light on their toes
  • trills, tremolos, and quick ascending arpeggiating figures to represent fairies’ winged flight[3]
  • section depicting fairy ball played in 3/8 time with dotted rhythms – creates a waltz-like spirit




Undine Beneath the Crystal Vault (Artist: Arthur Rackham)

an undine, or ondine, is a water nymph from ancient folklore that resembles a human, but has no human soul. in order to acquire one, it (she) must marry a mortal man.

  • depicts water through wavelike motion of rising and falling melodies passing through alternating hands
  • ondine’s motif does not appear to be going in any one direction – suggests the character is fish-like[4]
  • descending chromatic motif emits an ominous tonality – symbolizes the mysterious and bewitching aspect of the seemingly virtuous undine (the man she falls in love with is doomed to die should he be unfaithful)[5]


this is only a preview/taste of my paper – i also included more in-depth analyses of the pieces, complete with a 13-paged appendix showing my findings on marked up scores. but that’s too technical to put in this blog post.

okay so now, conclusion. TL;DR:

Debussy’s ingenuity in evoking Rackham’s illustrations and their respective stories through music is exemplified in his piano preludes “La Danse de Puck”, “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses”, and “Ondine”. Compositional techniques such as recurring motifs, dotted rhythms, and circular melodic figures contribute to Debussy’s music imagery, defining his musical style amongst other composers of his time, while simultaneously defining the characteristic traits of Impressionist music. As musicologist Stefan Jarocinski expresses, “people saw in the music of Debussy a kind of sound-painting”. Debussy was able to convey to his listeners that which cannot be communicated through words, but instead must be experienced through music: his perspectives, his inspirations, his mind.

that’s all for now.


[1] James Hamilton, Arthur Rackham (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990), 97.

[2] Frank Dawes, Debussy Piano Music (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969), 43.

[3] Herbert D. Seldin, An Analytical Study of Debussy’s Préludes for Piano (Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1966), 154.

[4] Seldin, An Analytical Study, 191.

[5] Dawes, Debussy Piano Music, 48.