Debussy’s twenty-four Preludes are among the composer’s last and best-known works for piano. They were composed and published in two books of twelve; Book 1 was published in 1910 and Book 2 in 1913. These preludes are well known for the unique way in which they are titled. At the beginning, each piece is simply numbered. The numbers, however, are connected by ellipses to a word or phrase placed at the end of the piece. Thus titled, each piece is provided a clear extra-musical association, but one given almost as an afterthought or subtitle.
Canope, the tenth prelude in Book 2, though lightly regarded by many critics, presents a particular challenge to the analyst. The musical form, appearing rather simple on the surface, hides deep connections and patterns of structure that resist traditional modes of explication. The title itself is problematic. Though it is an apparent reference to canopic jars—urns, often with elaborately carved stoppers, used in the ancient Egyptian mummification process—the precise meaning in the context of this prelude is unknown. Even more puzzling is the relationship between the title and the music. What is it about this music that led the composer to offer ‘Canope’ as his postscript?
With this single word, the composer invites his listeners thousands of years back in time to ancient Egypt to ponder the rituals of that ancient culture. It is most probable that ‘canope’ refers to a particular type of jar made primarily in the Nile delta region of Egypt near the city known to the ancient Greeks as Canopus (today Abu Qir).
Jars were used to protect the internal organs of the deceased during conveyance to the afterlife. The earliest extant examples date from the period of the Old Kingdom (c. 2500 BC) and are topped with simple, unadorned stoppers. Later, during the Middle Kingdom (c. 1900 BC), the stoppers were carved to resemble human heads, sometimes a representation of the person for whom they were created. About this same time each jar was placed under the protection of one of the four sons of Horus, guardian of the dead; the sons were in turn placed under the protection of a specific goddess. Still later during the New Kingdom (c. 1500 BC), the stoppers were often carved with the sons of Horus appearing as genii.
Some of the likely connections between the canopic jars and the music of Canope are easy to locate. The sight of a stark, slender canopic jar itself may have suggested the unadorned, blocked chords of the opening section. The narrow and quiet dynamic palette—p and pp are the only markings—adds to the sense of mystery. Tinges of modality and echoes of plainsong conjure times past and suggest a serious and contemplative subject matter.
While nothing is known with certainty about the origin of Canope or the images the composer had in mind, it is possible to draw some specific connections between Debussy and canopic jars. Debussy actually owned a pair of jars and kept them on his work table, though there is no further indication of where he got them or what significance he attached to them. It is likely, however, that he saw complete sets of jars on display at the Musée du Louvre, a place he frequented, and where, for at least one other prelude, Danseuses de Delphos, he found inspiration.
The musical structure of Canope presents its own set of puzzles. On the surface the piece is a textbook example of so-called additive process or non-developmental form. Additive process is often described as a compositional procedure in which small, often unrelated sound blocks are placed side by side or layered to build up a larger whole, much as an artist creates a mosaic or a stone mason constructs a wall. The venerable tradition of motivic development—what for Schoenberg was epitomized in Wagner’s music as ‘model and sequence’ and in Brahms’s as ‘developing variation’—is almost entirely foreign to Debussy’s additive technique. In the place of long, spun out, melody-driven phrases is (in the words of Robert Morgan) ‘a sort of floating balance among subtly interconnecting musical entities, giving rise to wave-like motions characterized by extremely fine gradations of color, pacing, and intensity.’
Delineation of the sound blocks used to construct Canope based primarily on contrasts in texture and rhythm reveals six musical ideas, which are placed side by side, sometimes overlapped, and laced together with subtle musical connections to produce nine discrete formal sections.
Viewed in this way, the work appears largely non-developmental, or as primarily a stream of discontinuous events. Points of formal articulation and repetitions of musical material give some sense of large-scale design, but the analysis reveals no other meaningful high-level groupings. Such an explanation is not wholly convincing; other organizing principles must be at play.
An approach I have found useful in probing the structure of this prelude is to read the piece as a story, that is, to find in the work a narrative design consistent with the implications of the title and complementary with objective formal segmentation. Literary theory describes the parts of a classic narrative in much the same way music theory describes the parts of a classical composition. The reader expects to find certain fairly well-defined sections and expects that they will be connected in an organized and comprehensible way. Aristotle writes that actions in a narrative should be organized so that ‘if any one of them is displaced or taken away, the whole will be shaken and put out of joint’.
̶ Now lie back and listen to this.
I lie back and close my eyes.
Slow, quiet, contemplative, the chords come, unfolding a percussive melody veiled in an infinity of vibrations. So this is the place she is taking me to, the overtones at the edge of awareness; the place where, unbeknownst to us, we were destined to meet. What is she telling me? That friendship between a man and a woman is characterized by sublimation, and therefore is necessarily an ethical relation? That the feminine horizon where she and Marietta lie will always be ever-receding to me? That even in marriage, fluidity cannot be confined? Conjuring subtle sonorities, she explores the resonance of dying sounds. What is she telling me? That the appropriation and exclusion that characterize a sexual relation need not deprive the friend of intimacy? That friendship between lover, ex and beloved can be full of subtle harmonics that promise a new music? Listen how they come, as if from a distance, the resonances that give birth to melody; listen to the beauty of the sound. Gathering the silence into a slow arabesque, a rhythmless motion where love resides, Ingrid gathers in my thoughts. Not stating harmonic resolution but letting the overtone imply it, with meticulous control of touch and pedal she sounds a note—soft, softer, dying…
̶ Ingrid, you’re amazing! What depth in so few notes!
She smiles. We rise and return to the sofa.
̶ What was it?
̶ Debussy. ‘Canope’. From the second book of Preludes.
̶ It’s very moving, that immobility.
̶ The kind of paradox I like! Yes. It’s masterfully written. All harmonics and voicing.
̶ Have you recorded the Preludes?
̶ I haven’t. I enjoy playing them, I’ve got them firmly in my fingers, but I feel no need to record them.
The porcelain glow of her skin brightens in the lamplight; from pale blue to ash grey her eyes veer as she turns to face me more fully: I’d never have imagined otherworldly pallor could be so beautiful.