Type ‘voiles – image’ into a search engine, and page after page of see-through curtains and sails appears, with the occasional bridal veil thrown in. The word is ambiguous in Debussy’s prelude of the same name, but the idea of diaphanous gauze, hazy and indistinct, comes across in this remarkable example of pianistic impressionism.
It has been suggested that ‘Voiles’ could have been inspired by the dancing of Loie Fuller, pictured above, who had a strong influence on artistic Paris at the turn of the century. As well as her trade-mark silk costume, pictured above, she also experimented with coloured lighting effects.
Here she is in action:
But whatever the inspiration, Voiles opens quietly, p três doux, Dans un rythme sans rigueur et caressant, with a hazy progression of whole-tone descending thirds, rising to a biting, dotted note motive. This recurrent figure can sometimes look very odd, being occasionally notated in fourths, and far below it there is a mysterious, repeated low B flat: anchored, quietly insistent, but rhythmically erratic, like an unpredictable heartbeat. Sandwiched in between is a rising and falling melody in octaves and then chords, again couched in whole-tone terms.
A profusion of details instructs the performer: tenuto marks, tiny crescendo and diminuendo signs, espressif, toujours pp. Très souple, the texture changes as the middle voice rocks back and forth with a new ostinato figure above the tolling B flat, the melody now more agitated, before a brief return to the opening material, fleshed out with an interwoven semiquaver pattern replacing the thirds. En animant and all changes; pentatonic flourishes on the black keys and a passage marked Emporté take us out of the mists to a brief moment of sunlit forte, before we sink back into nebulous, whole-tone territory.
The melody now floats high above, and the B flat pedal point covers an octave leap, while the whole-tone scale, comme un très léger glissando, drifts repeatedly upward between them. Get out the French dictionary for the last two lines –Très apaisé et très atténué jusqu’à la fin – and note the pauses and commas which bring the piece to an inconclusive, questioning close…
Here is Zimerman –