Although there were plans for writing music for Shakespeare’s As you Like It, Debussy’s five minutes of music for Le Roi Lear and the piano prelude La Danse de Puck, performed above by Debussy himself, are his only Shakespeare-based compositions.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is the mischievous servant of Oberon, king of the fairies; Oberon has a magic horn, which sounds throughout the piece. A friend who saw Peter Brook’s celebrated RSC production told me that Puck was on a trapeze, and would sometimes whizz about and crash in mid-air. If you haven’t time to read the entire thing, there are online Puck-related excerpts from the play, and there are various YouTube videos: filmed versions dating from 1909, with an enchanting 1935 version, and even one in animation . Puck sometimes gets it wrong, and has an impish sense of humour. And that’s all that we really need to know in order to play the piece; our imagination can do the rest. Think fairies-with-attitude, gossamer, magic, airy lightness, Peter Pan, and perhaps the occasional crash-landing.
Capricieux et léger, and Puck enters, with a cheeky, unaccompanied dotted-rhythm melody. Oberon’s horn-call interrupts, before the music takes off again in cross-handed somersaults. A brief Pressez, then in comes another musical idea, jumping about, leading to a rich, warm chordal passage in the LH; this twice gives way to the horn-call, accompanied by omnipresent, dancing dotted rhythms, pp aérien. Flowing triplets take over before a brief return of the second idea. Over buzzing LH trills, the RH flies up and down the piano, coming to rest briefly on the opening theme, which is then restated with a tremolo LH accompaniment and an added, lyrical inner melody. The horn sounds again, calling us to order; various motives come and go, before Oberon’s horn-call twice bids us farewell, Plus retenu. Puck exits – Rapide et fuyant.
Puck has the final word in the play, too. Here is Mickey Rooney in the 1935 film: