375-330 BC, or thereabouts, and a supporting column is built near Apollo’s Temple at Delphi in Greece, with three sculpted dancers frozen in time at its summit. Wearing short tunics, barefoot, an arm raised in gesture or perhaps holding crotales, they were rediscovered amongst the toppled ruins in 1894 during excavations by a French team of archeologists. Delphi is situated on Mount Parnassus – home of the Muses, the eponymous pianistic destination of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, and Debussy’s Dr Gradus ad Parnassum; he chose to bring those Danseuses de Delphes to life as the first of his Préludes in 1910, having seen a reproduction of the sculpture at the Louvre in Paris.
No neatly stylized Minuet or Passepied here; these Delphic dancers are slower but still gracefully fluid in their movements, Lent et grave the tempo, doux et soutenu the sound. As in so much of Debussy’s music, there are inner and outer layers to be conveyed: a legato, close-stepped melody tucked away within a progression of mezzo staccato chords, sometimes rising above while the chords are enfolded within, sometimes doubled at the octave while the chords appear offbeat above. The dance pauses twice while falling pianissimo chords pass by, elongating the phrases, then moves on inexorably in precise dotted rhythms towards the climax of the piece with its clashing major seconds – only a modest forte though, in a soundscape which asks the pianist to calibrate fine gradations at every level from f through mf, mp, p, piu p, pp, and piu pp, coming to rest serenely on an F major chord, ppp.
Towards the end, there are two backward glances at the opening theme, and perhaps the quiet ‘ting’ of crotales, before the concluding chords. Here is Cortot: