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Fleeting Fairy Footprints: Trails of Influence in a Debussy Prelude

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The titles of Claude Debussy’s twenty-four preludes for solo piano contain many references to places, scenes, and characters, reflecting the composer’s extensive knowledge of music, art, and literature and their influence upon his work. This study explores the rich history of the fourth prelude from book two, “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses" (“The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers”). The title “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses,” set in quotation marks by Debussy himself, indicates the immediate inspiration for the piece: the caption to an illustration by English artist Arthur Rackham in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Garden (Siglind Bruhn, Images and Ideas in Modern French Piano Music (Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1997), 150.)

My research asserts that Debussy’s musical portrayal of this illustration draws heavily on characteristics of nineteenth century fairy style, popularized by Mendelssohn in his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826). My study compares the musical content of Debussy’s prelude to the characteristic features of fairy style pioneered by Mendelssohn. In addition, this essay includes an overview of Debussy’s great admiration for the music of Carl Maria von Weber and contends that musical features that Debussy admired in Weber can be seen in Debussy’s own composition through both a direct reference and broader musical principles at work in the middle section of the piece.


Fairy, Music, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Weber, Rackham

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