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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing


At one time Debussy interested himself in pedagogy so much that he thought of writing a piano method of his own, because he considered those in existence unsatisfactory, uninspiring, tedious and mechanical. [Nichols p. 161]

A piano method by Claude Debussy. What would it be like? The above quote from Maurice Dumesnil indicates that Debussy might have thought about writing a piano method, but he never did, and probably didn't interest himself enough in this. It is however clear that Debussy had certain ideas on how his piano music should be played. In a letter he writes:

One is often betrayed by so-called pianists! I mean it - I can't tell you the extent to which my piano music has been deformed; so much so that often I have a job to recognize it! [Lesure & Nichols p. 222]

For the pianists who want a better understanding of the performance of Debussy's piano music, it is interesting to get to know the ideas that Debussy himself had. I have attempted to construct the piano method that Debussy could have written. That is, the ideas I present here are not my ideas about playing Debussy, but should as far as possible be Debussy's own ideas. Fortunately we have a lot of sources which, taken together, can give us a good indication of how Debussy wanted his music played.

The sources are books, articles and reminiscences by pianists, pupils and friends of Debussy. The articles and letters written by Debussy himself, which are quite numerous, unfortunately say little about piano playing, so we are mostly leaved with the secondary sources.

A lot of young pianists became interested in his piano music, and many studied with him for shorter or longer periods. The Spanish pianist Ricardo Viņes (1875-1943), who was a very active pianist on the contemporary music scene in Paris, also gave many first performances of Debussy's works. How much intruction he received from Debussy is uncertain, but he would typically play through the pieces for Debussy before he performed them in public. In the year 1902 he performed the work Pour le piano, and in his diary is written:

I went to Debussy's house, 58 Rue Cardinet, to rehearse three pieces. And Debussy is pleased I know them by heart. [Brody p. 52]

Marguerite Long (1878-1966), the famous French pianist, studied with Debussy the summer 1914 and the summer 1917. Her impressions are collected in her book At the piano with Debussy [Long]. She says that Debussy 'initiated her into the style, even if he did not go into all his works' [Long p. 12]. She claims to know all the secrets and wishes of Debussy, but there is still disappointingly little we get to know about the playing of Debussy. The book is rather poetically written, by someone apparently intoxicated by the music of Debussy. And so it is difficult to separate her opinions from those of Debussy, but it is still a valuable book.

E. Robert Schmitz (1889-1949) was a French pianist who later immigrated to the USA. Apparently he had gotten a thorough training from Debussy:

I remember also the standard of piano playing which Debussy himself had, and which he taught me through years of training. [Nichols p. 170]

His interesting book The piano works of Claude Debussy gives an aesthetic discussion of the style of Debussy, and then goes through all the piano works with analysis and advice on interpretation. The book presents of course the opinions of Schmitz and not necessarily what Debussy himself said, but he was after all a student of Debussy. In addition he published in 1937 the article A Plea for the Real Debussy [Nichols p. 171].

The French pianist Maurice Dumesnil (1886-?) has given us a lot of interesting details of Debussy's teaching in his article Coaching with Debussy [Nichols p. 163] and in his book How to play and teach Debussy [Dumesnil], a piano method with exercises and examples from Debussy's piano pieces.

George Copeland (1882-1971) was an American pianist who travelled to Paris and studied with Debussy for four months. He published the article Debussy, the man I knew [Nichols p. 167]

Another important source is Louis Laloy, not a pianist but an intellectual and a close friend of Debussy. He published already in the year 1909 a biography of Debussy. A chapter in his book is called "Advice on playing Debussy's music" [Priest p. 107]. Laloy had heard Debussy several times in concert and privat. The chapter was also endorsed by Debussy in a letter:

There's no need to alter anything in the advice you've given for playing my music. It remains simply to read and understand. [Lesure & Nichols p. 209]

Besides these important sources we have several valuable reminiscences from other people who met Debussy. We can also get some hints through the articles and letters which Debussy himself wrote.