Debussy had no idea that later composers would lovingly declare him the first musical modernist. In fact, by the early months of 1889 it remained unclear whether Debussy would find his way as a composer at all. His best-known works all lay ahead of him, as did his signature style. This year would prove decisive, however, for he wrote the enduring work we hear tonight; repudiated old influences on his tastes; deepened his affiliations with the leading poets of the day; and encountered Asian musical traditions that permanently changed his thinking—all in a span of months. Still fresh from schooling that found him in open rebellion against the rules of composition, Debussy jumped at a chance to write for two pianists at the same keyboard in February 1889, even for a private performance with a limited guest list. Look around you: The Petite Suite he submitted, later arranged for orchestra, obviously found larger audiences later. It continues to charm music-lovers with its mix of rippling Romantic melody plus flashes of the gauzy digression that would soon become his main style. Imagine hearing the cozy, palpably warm textures of “En beateau,” the first movement, before the bustling “Ballet” helps you find the energy to leave for the blustery Parisian night outside. It befits the season.
So steeped was Debussy in the poetry of Paul Verlaine in this era that the first two movements of the Petite Suite drew inspiration (and titles) from his poems, despite having no words. “En beateau” and “Cortège” both come from Verlaine’s 1869 collection Fêtes Galantes, a set of poetic throwbacks to the eighteenth century and its bawdy street theatre. These two poems, which inspired Debussy to create music of soaring beauty, hint at the unspeakable things that can happen when, for example, a couple go sailing together (“En beateau”). Yet in the here and now, we can hear these compositions—and the two entirely abstract pieces that follow—differently. When was the last time you saw boats off the coast, or perhaps rode in one, and felt a swell of emotion hit you in the chest? There’s “En bateau” in a nutshell. What about finding your way to the shore to greet the sun? “Cortège” has that seeking, restless quality. We can map the winter of Debussy’s work onto our own; such is the power of wordless music.