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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing

Musical expression

Now I will investigate what kind of expression Debussy was after in his music. Maurice Dumesnil describes the ideals that Debussy had for a performance like this:

Clarity was certainly one of his major preoccupations. Another was simplicity in expression. 'Pas d'affection, surtout!' No affection, no mannerisms. Here once more one finds an echo from the great harpsichordist' creed, from the supreme good taste of Rameau, Couperin, Lully, Dandrieu, Chambonnières, Daquin and others. [Nichols p. 161]

Thus clarity and a somewhat restrained expression. Debussy hints himself to this: that he prefered a not to extrovert expression. In a letter of 1909, following a performance of Pelléas et Melisande in London, he wrote this about the conductors interpretation:

Campanini understands the work fairly well - a little too extrovert - but at least it's warm and alive. [Lesure & Nichols p. 199]

Louis Laloy cautions against emotional outburst such as is common in romantic music:

Conductors will do well to forget Berlioz and Wagner as completely as this can be done; no contrasts here, and, above all, none of those sentimental outbursts in which our instrumentalists - corrupted by their repertoire - unfortunately indulge as soon as they are asked to be expressive. [Priest p. 103]

Marguerite Long says that Debussy criticized certain interpretations of Voiles as being too colourful:

"It is not a photograph of the beach, or a postcard for 15th August!" he said. [Long p. 63]

From George Copeland we have an advice about which approach performers of his music ought to have:

When I asked him why so few people were able to play his music, Debussy replied, after some reflection: 'I think it is because they try to impose themselves upon the music. It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you - to be a vessel through which it passes. [Nichols p. 167]

So the perfomer must not force an exaggerated expression onto the music - it should flow naturally. This is consistent with what Laloy says:

The first requirements for playing such music is that it should not be considered difficult. Those who hear only dissonances in it, or search fruitlessly for the melody which is so obvious to others, must be advised to continue with their meditations until they receive grace, or else to give up, and abstain. When the performer has sensed what is there, he must not exert himself to put in what is not there, and particularly not 'effects'. [Priest p. 107]

Further Laloy says something about the continuity and the flow in the music that performers should keep in mind:

Everything must follow on and hold together. This music must be bathed in harmony; it will not tolerate any ugliness, even intelligent ugliness. [Priest p. 109]

Everything has to follow on naturally. Laloy elaborates on this in another passage by discussing what he calls “unity of tone”:

... the secret of unity which is not guaranteed by external means, does not have signposts, but relies on the natural succesion of impressions. It is the unity of a character, of a landscape; in a word, it is unity of tone. [Priest p. 82]

Laloy explains what he means by unity of tone, by contrasting Debussy's style with romantic music. In romantic music different musical ideas are juxtaposed, and it is important to bring forth the contrasts. But in Debussy everything follows on, and one should not notice the transitions. This means that the performer has to connect very well all the parts into a whole, so that everything grows out of the same atmosphere. The performance has to have unity and continuity:

The quality which matters most is unity of tone. Anything which disturbs it, portamenti, interruptions of the rhythm, arbitrary retardations or accelerandi, is not only unnecessary, but disastrous. Moreover, it would be better to mistake completely the spirit of a piece, for example to play 'Pagodes' playfully, or 'La Soirée dans Grenade' in the manner of a bullfighter on guard, than abruptly to break the spell with a jab or a grimace. [Priest p. 107]

Laloy wrote this in 1909, before many of the most important piano works of Debussy were composed. It still seems that this view generally is an important part of the Debussy aesthetics, since it is also confirmed in other sources. George Copeland thus tells us that Debussy was particularily fond of his (Copeland's) piano arrangement of L'après-midi d'un faune, because of the unity and continuity one thereby could achieve:

He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L'après-midi d'un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. [Nichols p. 166]

This account also shows that Debussy didn't want sharp contrasts in the musical progression, but soft transitions. That this not only applies to L'après-midi d'un faune, is clear from an advice by Dumesnil. The performer should avoid an uneven and "chopped up" interpretation, even in rythmic, humoristic pieces:

In the pieces of a rhythmic, humoristic character, one must be most careful not to exaggerate, not to over-emphasize a sense of humor which must always remain truly “Gallic”, discreet and refined. Likewise, make it a point to respect a general unity of the rhythmic line. This will avoid a “chopped up”, “jerky” interpretation. [Dumesnil p. 23]