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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing

Artistic licence of the performer

How free can a performer of Debussy's works be? Is he allowed any liberties in the interpretation? The last chapter indicated that Debussy didn't want anything else from a performer than that he follow the indications in the score. And in a concert critique Debussy praises the performer's faithfulness to the score:

...Mme Olénine's fine musical intelligence in choosing and performing these pieces [Moussorgsky songs]. You couldn't wish for a more faithful interpreter. Everything was pronounced with a correctness little short of miraculous. [Lesure 1977 p. 42]

During the war Debussy worked with an edition of Chopins piano works. In a letter addressed to Durand he says:

How can you expect three manuscripts, certainly not all in Chopin's hand, to agree with each other? Of course, only one can be right... [Lesure & Nichols p. 296]

This would suggest that he was of the opinion that there would exist 'one right version' of a work of music, at least in the medium of a score, and perhaps also regarding how a performer should interpret it.

The pianist Alfredo Casella, in pointing out how demanding Debussy was, also reveals something more.

Himself so incomparable an executant, Debussy was extremely exacting of the interpreters of his works. Rarely indeed have I ever seen him fully satisfied with a performance. He detested almost all the greatly celebrated virtuosi', who are so generally quite unmusical; on the other hand, he was well disposed toward certain cultivated and intelligent interpreters who enjoyed no clamorous reputation, but who loved music with the same disinterested, sacred love as he. [Nichols p. 97]

This shows that although Debussy was very particular on interpretation, what he valued most was a performer with a real love for the music. Ricardo Viñes, a celebrated pianist who was trusted with so many first performances of the works of Debussy, was still accused of being 'too dry' {Nichols p. 148]. Debussy also said that he had heard only two fine pianists in his lifetime:

... my old piano teacher, a small, fat lady who threw me into Bach and who played him as no one does nowadays, making him live [...]. The second pianist was Liszt, whom I heard in Rome. [Nichols p. 148]

The fact that Liszt is one of the ideal pianists for Debussy, is maybe a bit surprising, considering that Liszt was a real romantic pianist who took a lot of liberties in his playing.

There are actually many indications that Debussy didn't always have preconcieved conceptions on how his music were to be performed. If he thought a pianist convincing, then he could accept other interpretations than his own. The following story, told by Maurice Dumesnil, shows that:

Paderewski [...] once featured 'Reflets dans l'eau' on one of his programmes. Moved by curiosity, Debussy went to the recital. He was surprised when Paderewski played this piece daintily, with charm, with refinement, and with a pearly technique that would have better befitted a set of variations by Haydn and Mozart. 'It was delightful,' he said to Paderewski. 'Not at all what I had in mind. But please do not change an iota in your interpretation!' [Nichols p. 161]

George Copeland, who came to study with Debussy, also tell that Debussy wouldn't force his interpretation on him. After playing through Reflets dans l'eau for him, Copeland was asked why he played the last two bars in a certain way:

'It's funny,' [Debussy] said reflectively, 'That's not the way I feel them.' But when I said, 'Then I will interpret them as you intended,' his reply was a definite 'No, no! Go on playing them just as you do.'[Nichols p. 165]

In 1917 the conductor Ernest Ansermet visited Debussy.

We discussed many of the tempi of his works and I asked him some questions about the Nocturnes. He took down his score of the Nocturnes and I saw then that this score was full of corrections, with pencil of all colours: red pencil, blue pencil, green pencil. I asked him, “What is right?” He said, “I don't know. Take the score with you and bring it back in a few days and choose what seems to you good.[Nichols p. 244]

Nocturnes was composed many years before, and even though Debussy had conducted this work many times, he apparently thought that some decisions were best left with the conductor.

Thus, Debussy could on some occasions be very particular on how his music should be performed, but he could also change his opinion easily. What can be the reason for this? The oboe player François Gillet, after the first performance of La mer, remembered that Debussy gave a reason for why he indicated a different tempo than the day before: "I don't feel music the same way every day." [Nichols p. 183] Debussy gave a more extended explanation of his view to the poet Sylvain Bonmariage around 1903:

So you really think a poem has only one meaning! Aren't you aware that each one of your poems is transformed by each of its readers? And it's the same with every musical score. You only have to listen to experts talking about them. You write poems as you like. We can draw from them the music that we like. And the listener, or reader, finds in them the charm that he likes. Everything is relative. I know that every work of art contains elements that are praised and applauded without exception; and it is easy to see that these elements are the ones most readily understood by mediocre intelligences. [Nichols p. 112]

In this text Debussy clearly shows himself as someone who thinks that a work can be given several interpretations, depending on the interpret. The fact that Debussy was very particular on the interpretation of his works, doesn't have to be a paradox. Even though a work can have several meanings, one is not completely at liberty to do anything. One has to have an understanding of the work and of the style. This is clear when Debussy says "I can't tell you the extent to which my piano music has been deformed."[Lesure & Nichols p. 222] But with an understanding of the music it is possible to find several interpretations of the music. On those occations where Debussy explains vey carefully how the music should be performed, he gives his view as a performer. It doesn't necessarily mean that no other interprations would be possible.