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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."
The two arabesques are given these tempo marks:
This arabesque is in the key of E major. The piece begins with parallelism of triads in first inversion, a composition technique very much used by Debussy and other Impressionists which traces back to the tradition of fauxbourdon. It leads into a larger section which begins 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, starting with a gesture (E-D-E-C♯), briefly passing through E major, returning to A major and ending with a bold pronouncement of the E-D-E-C♯ gesture, but transposed to the key of C major and 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.
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 piece makes several transpositions and explores a lower register of the piano. Again notable is a hint of the pentatonic scale. It closes in a similar fashion to the first arabesque. The style more closely resembles some of Debussy's later works.
Arabesque No. 1 is generally the more well-known of the two, being a readily-recognized piece of classical music and making its way into such things as phone ringtones.
Arabesque No. 1 was the theme music to the PBS show Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer. The version used is an electronic rendition by Isao Tomita, from the album Snowflakes Are Dancing. This version is also played thematically during the opening and end credits of the Spanish TVE series Planeta imaginario.
Arabesque No. 1 is used in the Japanese movie All about Lily Chou-Chou (2001), the title of which refers an enigmatic pop star who bears the nicknames of Debussy's wife and daughter.
Arabesque No. 1 is used in the third season of the British television show Skins (2009), featuring in JJ's episode along with other Debussy pieces such as Golliwogg's Cakewalk and Clair de lune, where the impressionist music reflects JJ's inner thoughts and emotional personality.
Arabesque No. 1 is used as background music in the video "Masterpieces Of The Met", to accompany the images and verbal description (by Met director Philippe de Montebello) of a painting by the French Impressionist artist Monet.
Arabesque No. 1 is appropriated on R&B/Soul singer Alicia Keys' track "Like the Sea", from her 4th studio album The Element of Freedom. Arabesque No. 1 was also sampled by the American musician Panda Bear on the track "Lonely Wanderer", which features on his 2015 album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.
In the video game Final Fantasy V, the character may play various pianos which are found throughout the game, which plays small musical segments simulating a gradually-improving grasp of piano technique. The final segment uses a small, adapted excerpt from the first Arabesque.
In 2001 the British composer Kenneth Hesketh arranged the Arabesques for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. The scores are available from Schott Music, London.