What do you think of when you read the word: Arabesque? To an artist, it consists of “surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils”* found in Islamic art and in European decorative art from the Renaissance onwards.
To a classical musician, it’s a piece which usually has a decorated melodic line, which seems neatly to combine the other two ideas. Debussy wrote two Arabesques, and they are a good starting point for a survey of some of his music, as they are early works -roughly 1888 – and the first Arabesque is often encountered early in a pianist’s repertoire at about Grade 8.
As well as being a very charming piece, it is useful for teaching 3-against-2, with RH triplets against LH quavers. Isolating the rhythms as a tapping exercise first, then trying a RH C major scale in triplets aginst a LH one in quavers, are useful practice methods; in the piece itself a careful RH fingering, trying to avoid bumpy position changes, will be essential, as in Liszt’s much earlier Sposalizio which it resembles. The LH has to glide smoothly through the arpeggios, too.
The middle section needs careful counting, with longer note values in the middle of the bar sometimes incorrectly shortened by less rhythmic players. There are good opportunities for rubato, and pedalling needs attention to avoid blurring, yet, sometimes, to give a wash of colour.
The second Arabesque is less often heard, but it is a delightful companion piece, requiring nimble fingers and clarity of attack in the RH triplet-based motives that feature throughout. Try a change of fingers in the triplet -eg 243 instead of 232 -to avoid what Ronald Smith used to call ‘the law of inertia’.
In both pieces, quiet dynamics are often called for; Debussy’s music requires a finely graded palette of soft sounds. A French dictionary will be useful for the less common musical terms. Innocuous and pleasant pieces – a good introduction to the composer. And, thinking of his later development, completely misleading.
Below is a piano roll of Debussy himself playing his second Arabesque. The group photograph shows Debussy playing to Chausson in 1893.
*John Fleming and Hugh Honour, Dictionary of the Decorative Arts 1977