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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing

Musical imagination and atmosphere

Debussy of course really wanted something more from a performer than just following the score correctly. This is obvious from the following story in the book by Long:

Some time in 1917 Debussy went to hear the Suite played by a famous pianist.
'How was it?' I asked him on his return.
'Dreadful. He didn't miss a note.'
'But you ought to be satisfied. You who insist on the infallible precision of every note.'
'Oh, not like that.' Then emphatically, 'Not like that.' [Long p. 24]

The same can be seen from a statement in a letter of 1909 to Durand:

Mlle Féart [...] sings the notes, but there's nothing behind them. In confidence, it's a dissappointment. [Lesure & Nichols p. 199]

In another letter from the year after he also gives a hint about this. That year he was in the jury of a clarinet competition (where his piece Rapsodie was played):

One of the candidates, Vandercruyssen, played it by heart and very musically. The rest were straightforward and nondescript. [Lesure & Nichols p. 222]

What it would mean to Debussy to play musically, I will try to find out more about.

After the premiére of Pelléas et Melisande Debussy wrote to the conductor André Messager and told him how much he appreciated the performance. In this situation it is natural that Debussy would praise the conductor. We can still get a suggestion of what Debussy would value in a performance.

You knew how to bring the music of Pelleas to life with a tender delicacy I dare not hope to find elsewhere, sure as I am that in all music the interior rhythm depends on the interpreter's evocation of it, as a word depends on the lips that pronounce it...So your interpretation of Pelleas was deepened by the personal feelings you brought to it and from which stemmed that marvellous effect of 'everything in its place'. [Lesure & Nichols p. 98]

'Everything in its place' could mean a strict and firm interpretation, and somewhat contained. But the conductor also brought his 'personal feelings' to the work, and Debussy emphasize that the work was brought to life by the conductor.

It is interesting that Debussy, during a tour in Hungary, was captivated by the musicality of a gipsy musician. He writes enthusiastically of this in a letter:

When you listen to Radics you loose awareness of your surroundings...you breathe the forest air and hear the sound of streams; and it's a melancholy, confidential message from a heart that suffers and laughs almost at the same moment...[Lesure & Nichols p. 232]

In the same letter he also writes: “...the gypsies' freedom, their gifts of evocation, of colour and rhythm.” This is an enthusiasm about what was for Debussy exotic music. But the description also shows that Debussy was aware of the important role of the musician in making the music live. The phrase “loose awareness of your surroundings” could imply what Debussys's idea of a good performance of music would constitute.

In a letter to Blanche Marot, Debussy praises her for her performance:

I don't think anyone else could have sung La Damoiselle élue with so much feeling, sensitivity and sincerity. At times you were able to escape so totally from the material environment, it became otherworldly, and the way you delivered the words 'Tout ceci sera quand il viendra' remains one of the most profound musical experiences of my life, something I'm sure I shall never forget. [Lesure & Nichols p. 114]

To "escape from the material environment" seems to be one aspect of music performance which Debussy thought important. This aspect he also brings up when he writes of the playing of a young pianist which impressed him in an audition for the conservatoire in 1909:

...the most artistic of all the candidates was a young Brazilian girl of 13. She's not beautiful, but her eyes are 'drunk with music' and she has the ability to cut herself off from her surroundings which is the rare but characteristic mark of the artist. [Lesure & Nichols p. 216]

Debussy sometimes compared his music to improvisation, maybe in an attempt to describe the dreamy aspect of the music. In a letter of 1910, after a rehearsel on Ibéria, he wrote:

You can't imagine how naturally the transition works between 'Parfums de la nuit' and 'Le matin d'un jour de fête'. It sounds as though it's improvised... The way it comes to life, with people and things waking up. [Lesure & Nichols p. 217]

Debussy is also supposed to have said that he wanted to write music with a form so free that it would sound improvised. [Orenstein p. 159] This gives of course performers a clue as to how the music should be understood.