Karstein Djupdal >> Debussy >> piano method


A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing

Technique and touch

In this section I will concentrate on how Debussy viewed the technical aspects of piano playing. The type of touch a pianist will choose, depends on the sound he wants to achieve. In the following quote by Dumesnil (also in the section "Sound and colours"), he explains how Debussy connected sound and touch:

The remarks dealing with Reflets dans l'eau were illuminating. from the first, the chord background ought to be subdued; played with laterally moving fingers, drowned in pedal, once more. 'I do not hear the bells,' Debussy commented. I gave more tone, but it was not of the proper quality. 'Keep your left hand hanging loosely from your wrist. Then let it drop, and let the tip of your third finger play those notes,' he said. [Nichols p. 160]

Debussy here describes how to achieve a sound of "bells" with a special touch. E. Robert Schmitz also writes about this kind of touch:

One must learn to play Debussy's music as he played it himself, striking each note as though it were a bell, listening always for the hovering clusters of vibrating overtones above and below it. [Nichols p. 171]

In these instances the pedal must be used, to create resonance, and the key should not be held. Debussy was very particular on the right kind of touch:

Another thing Debussy insisted upon was the proper way to strike a note on the piano. 'It must be struck in a peculiar way,' he would say, 'otherwise the sympathetic vibrations of the other notes will not be heard quivering distantly in the air.' [Nichols p. 171]

Louis Laloy confirms that a tone should often be held in the pedal, and not by the fingers. This means that one shouldn't play Debussy with the fingers glued to the keys:

Often notes are accompanied by a sign which was quite rarely used up to now, which is a small dash. Some people think they must detach these notes, others think they must intensify them; but what is asked for is a transparent sonority; it can be achieved by a clean and never harsh attack, which is prolonged by the pedal, with the finger leaving the key immediately. [Priest p. 108]

Thus according to Laloy this kind of attack is indicated with a dash. That is interesting, because this notation is not always understood by pianists in that way.

I have elsewhere mentioned the carezzando-touch. Dumesnil gives and description of this kind of touch, and recommends it for pianissimo-effects. This kind of touch probably also depends on using the pedal.

In order to achieve certain "pianissimo" effects (on single notes principally), it is better to replace the direct attack at a right angle, by an oblique, slanting, indirect attack, which will bring the finger in contact with the key progressively. [Dumesnil p. 13]

Debussy was very concerned with sensitive fingers. Dumesnil remembers this as one of Debussy's most important instructions:

'Play with more sensitiveness in the finger tips. Play chords as if the keys were being attracted to your finger tips, and rose to your hand as to a magnet.' [Dumesnil p. 9]

Laloy also writes about sensitive fingers: "The pianist, paying attention to his touch, should feel the sound in his fingertips." [Priest p. 109]. This would indicate a closeness to the keyboard, even though the tones shouldn't necessarily be held by the fingers. According to Timbrell, Yvonne Lefébure was instructed by Debussy in Jardin sous la pluie to hold the fingers near the keys:

[Debussy] showed her how to get the right sounds for the left-hand chords on the final two pages of Jardin sous la pluie, using a formed hand position and outstretched fingers that stayed close to the keys and kneaded them. "Hands are not made to be in the air above the piano, but to enter inside." [Timbrell (2000) p. 12]

Marguerite Long referred the same expression from Debussy:

The hands are not meant to hover in the air over the piano, put to enter into it. [Long p. 13]

Dumesnil tells us about Debussy's opinion on arm relaxation, which was something new in piano technique at the time:

From time to time he spoke on relaxation; it was becoming a fad among pianists, and they carried it to the extreme. 'It is not advisable to use relaxation constantly,' he said. 'In pianissimo chords, for instance, the fingers must have a certain firmness, so the notes will sound together. But it must be the firmness of rubber, without any stiffness whatsoever.' [Nichols p. 162]

Thus Debussy was, despite his soft touch, of the opinion that fingers should be firm. Typical for the french jeu perlé was passages played quickly, lightly and clearly. Le vent dans la plaine and Feux d'artifices both opens with quick and subdued passage-work, similar to jeu perlé. However, Dumesnil warns against performing these to mechanically:

In these, and other compositions where “light virtuosity” play a great part, be most careful never to become mechanical. Although of a rapid, running character, too much evident articulation would produce dryness. Here again, a close attack is necessary, with extremely quick and light motion of the finger tips. [Dumesnil p. 22]