About this work
On February 2, 1889, Claude Debussy himself collaborated with the pianist and publisher Jacques Durand in the first performance of the Petite Suite, for piano, four hands. Debussy's Petite Suite is a work of immediate lyric charm. But as a number of Debussy scholars have opined, it hardly seems to fit into the prevailing climate of deeply-felt Romantic utterance which characterizes many of Debussy's finest song settings, which are closely contemporaneous. As Frank Dawes, for example, writes of the work, "composed shortly after the Ariettes oubliées to poems by Verlaine, the Suite is in such sharp contrast to those remarkable songs that it could almost have come from another hand. Yet the suite, helped by an orchestration by Henri Büsser, has become even more popular than the Arabesques." Debussy clearly intended this music to be judged on its own merits, and on the basis of what it strove to achieve. Its purpose is to entertain, rather than to educate or intellectually challenge, and in this Debussy's Petite Suite succeeds admirably.
The Suite is made of four individual movements, each one constructed in such a way as to give more or less equal opportunities to both pianists, not that the work is especially demanding to play, a further indication, perhaps, that Debussy intended these pieces for the amateur market. As in several of his early piano works, the prevailing style owes much to the lighter idioms of Delibes and Massenet, though in a sense, this genre was one which suited Debussy's highly personal language quite naturally. The first movement, "En bateau," also shows the clear influence of the equivalent movement of Fauré's Dolly Suite, composed some years earlier, in the sensitive and alluring disposition of the parts, as a sublime melody is floated above a broken chordal accompaniment. A passage toward the close is doubly prophetic, firstly because it employs a whole-tone scale, and also (writes Dawes) "in the little pattern of semi-quavers contributed by the secondo player, very like things in the later music used to symbolise ripples, eddies and whirlpools in water."
The next movement, "Cortège," is a brilliantly evocative processional, suggesting a marching band on a festival day (as does "Fêtes" in Debussy's Images for orchestra), while the penultimate movement, "Menuet," is generally regarded as the high point of the work. With its particularly subtle interplay, especially between the middle voices, it (writes Frank Dawes) "begins with suggestions of elfin pipes and horns...and the magical vanishing trick at the end has fairy horn-calls echoing faintly around the main melody in a way that suggests that Debussy's piano music was by now beginning to find a place in his unique dream-world." The final movement of Debussy's Petite Suite, entitled "Ballet," is an energetic dance, with a contrasting central section rooted in the world of French popular theatre music of the day.