The Musikfest begins with a prelude, an evening of piano music that bridges two contrasting worlds. Claude Debussy’s “24 Préludes” stand within a long tradition that reached its peak with Bach’s “Wohltemperiertes Klavier” and Chopin’s “Préludes”. Composed between 1910 and 1913 they simultaneously point far ahead into the unknown territory of the 20th century. What Pierre Boulez said about the (orchestral) prelude “L’Après-midi d’un faune” – that this was where modernism had begun – is equally applicable to his piano pieces in this genre. Debussy emphasises the uniqueness of each of the individual “Préludes”, grouping them not in a sequence of keys like Bach and Chopin and not even bothering to cover each one. Key signatures, it seems, had already served their purpose as an overriding principle. The links between them emerge from experiencing their contexts and not from a pre-determined order. Debussy wrote character pieces and studies about the suggestive power of the piano sound. Several of the titles he gave the pieces allude to this, such as “Voiles” (Sails), “Le vent dans la plaine” (The Wind on the Plain), “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (What the West Wind Saw), “La cathédrale engloutie” (The Sunken Cathedral), “Brouillards” (Fog), “Feuilles mortes” (Fallen Leaves), “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks). However, these were deliberately placed after the compositions rather than above them, as material that could be reflected upon in retrospect.
Debussy died in 1918, a year that marked a deep break in European history. The old order had been shattered and the struggle to establish a new one began in earnest. As an expression of the human spirit art attempted to raise its sights above this great chasm before it opened. And Debussy’s music with its drive towards fluid form and incisive precision established a bridge to the post-war period even before this had begun.