Depending on the context, the term arabesque has several different meanings. Originally, it described a style of Arab art and architecture consisting of intricate designs of geometric floral, and foliate patterns. Similarly, as it applies to classical music, arabesque is a style of music that is ornately decorative. Most arabesques were composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Two Arabesques (Deux arabesques), L. 66, is a pair of arabesques composed for piano by Claude Debussy. They are two of Debussy’s earliest works, composed between the years 1888 and 1891, when he was still in his twenties.
Although quite an early work, the arabesques contain hints of Debussy’s developing musical style. The suite is one of the very early impressionistic pieces of music, following the French visual art form. Debussy seems to wander through modes and keys, and achieves evocative scenes through music. His view of a musical arabesque was a line curved in accordance with nature, and with his music he mirrored the celebrations of shapes in nature made by the Art Nouveau artists of the time. Of the arabesque in baroque music, he wrote:
“that was the age of the ‘wonderful arabesque,’ when music was subject to the laws of beauty inscribed in the movements of Nature herself.”
Arabesque No. 1. Andantino con moto
The second arabesque is in the key of E major. This piece begins with parallelism of triads in first inversion, a composition technique very much used by Debussy and the impressionist movement. It leads into a larger section beginning with a left hand arpeggio in E major and a descending right hand E major pentatonic progression.
The second quieter B section is in A major, which starts with a gesture (E-D-E-C♯), briefly passes through E major, returns to A major and ends with a bold pronouncement of the E-D-E-C♯ gesture, but transposed to the key of C major, played forte.
In the middle of the recapitulation of the A section, the music moves to a higher register and descends, followed by a large pentatonic scale ascending and descending, and resolving back to E major.
Listen to Arabesque No. 1: Arabesque Nr. 1
Arabesque No. 2. Allegretto scherzando
The second arabesque in G major is noticeably quicker and more lively in tempo. It opens with left hand chords and right hand trills. The pieces makes several transpositions and explores a lower register of the piano. Again notable is a hint of the pentatonic scale. The style more closely resembles some of Debussy’s later works. Like the closing bars of the first arabesque, this arabesque closes in a similar fashion.