With a name derived from the French word ‘onde’, meaning wave, it is not difficult to discover the watery nature of the Ondine/Undine mythical character. Her legend exists in many countries and ages; as a Siren in ancient Greece, as a Rhinemaiden in Germany, and as a mermaid almost everywhere.
Debussy’s Ondine from the Préludes Book II was inspired by Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Ondine; Rackham had also illustrated James Barrie’s Peter Pan, a copy of which had been given to Debussy’s daughter (pictured above); Debussy’s prelude Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses was inspired by pictures in that volume.
Say ‘Ondine’ to a pianist however, and I think we would all at first reply ‘Ravel’, thinking of Ravel’s more famous 1908 piece of the same name from the triptych Gaspard de la Nuit, based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand. ‘Ecoute, écoute! C’est moi, c’est Ondine…’ she sings, with deadly intent, as she tries to seduce a mortal to follow her to a watery grave. Debussy’s Ondine, on the other hand, frolics and splashes about at the opening, Scherzando; she just wants to have a good time.
This is a piece for advanced pianists, written on three staves. Listening to Debussy’s other water pieces, especially La Mer for orchestra, is a good way to appreciate the layered textures which are required. After the introduction there are three musical ideas: a main theme of paired semiquavers with a sharpened 4th in 6/8, alternating with bars that feel as if they are in 3/4; a scintillant figure which swirls about, and, Retenu, a single voice which has a mysterious melody of repeated notes. That idea is used with some insistence higher in the treble, reappears in longer note-values above two other layers, rubato and mormorando, and then is heard in a more menacing, darker hue in the bass, before the piano and pianissimo ending with demisemiquavers marked aussi léger que possible. A final splash – and she’s gone.