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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing

Accuracy of interpretation

Debussy had a definite opinion on how his music was to be performed, and could be very demanding on his interpreters. This is confirmed by several accounts. Ricardo Viñes expresses this with some frustration:

In the evening, the third Durand concert in the Salle Erard, at which I played the first set of Debussy's Images. It was such a success that I had to play an encore; I chose 'La soirée dans Grenade', which I hadn't played since the first Durand concert a fortnight ago. I wasn't very happy about it, especially since I knew Debussy was there in a box and he never finds this piece played as he wants it. [Nichols p. 193]

The singer Ninon Vallin:

It was difficult to satisfy him, he was very demanding. [...] The numerous expression marks which he introduced into his text had to be observed with complete punctiliousness. [...] His keen, sensitive ear suffered, and at the slightest mistake he would jump up from his chair. [Nichols p. 182]

E. Robert Schmitz emphazises the importance of following exactly the detailed indications in the score:

I can well remember his insistence on the precision and exactitude of the indications marked on the scores in their minutest details. [Schmitz p. 35]

Marguerite Long confirms this:

Debussy has left us all the indications possible for the executant of his work. He regarded this with the utmost care, and at times was almost fierce about it. [Long p. 13] .

She indicates that Debussy expressed the opinion that all the performer has to do is to follow the score.

When Debussy was offered an artist of genius to sing the part of Mélisande, [he replied]: "A faithful interpreter is sufficient." [Long p. 13]

This would coincide with the view of Igor Stravinsky, who knew Debussy, and who stressed the importance of music being faithfully executed by the performer, rather than interpreted in a self-indulgant romantic way [Stravinsky p. 121f]. Also Ravel expressed the view that his music shouldn't be 'interpreted', but 'played'. [Perlemuter]. What these composers wanted to avoid, was a distortion of the music because of the performer doing something of his own which wouldn't suit the music. This idea, however, must be viewed on the background of the tradition and ideals of the 19th-century romantic pianist, which were quite different.

On the other hand, if we by the term 'interpret' understand 'to play what the composer intended', it is clear that all music has to be interpreted. Still, it can be that the interpreter is not as free in the music of Stravinsky and Ravel, as in music of earlier composers. Whether or not this is true for Debussy, I will investigate further in the next chapter.