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A piano method by Claude Debussy

Debussy's ideas on piano playing


Pedalling was very important in the playing of Debussy (see the section Debussy at the piano: use of pedal). Debussy marked however almost never any pedalling in the score. According to Dumesnil, he gave a reason for this:

Pedalling cannot be written down,' he explained. 'It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.' [Nichols p. 162]

There still exists some concrete advise by Debussy on how to use the pedal. Regarding Clair de Lune he suggested to put down both pedals before one start, "in order to let the overtones vibrate" [Nichols p. 159]. To use both pedals at the same time, was apparently an effect that Debussy liked. In Pagodes he indicates this by writing "2 ped", one of the few pedal indications that exists in Debussy's works.

The question whether Debussy wanted the music blured by the pedal, is central, and highly debated among pianists. Dumesnil warns against this:

He also gave me a wonderful object lesson in pedalling fast passages. I realize how many interpreters are misled by the famous blur so often associated with Debussy's piano music. He wanted the pedal used in long harmonic strokes, without breaks or confusion. Occasionally he allowed the pedal to encroach a tiny fraction from one harmony into the next, similarly to what one does when practising the five-finger exercise C,D,E,F,G legato by lifting one finger just an instant after one plays the next. In any case, the blur should be used only for special effects, and with utmost discretion. [Nichols p. 160]

E. Robert Schmitz, on the prélude Le vent dans la plaine:

Do not melt together the sounds of the opening trill, of which various forms are used nearly throughout the prélude. These figures must be very light but with each note distinct. A very superficial forte pedal may be used or none at all. [Schmitz p. 138]

Debussy, in a letter of 1915, writes himself about the pedal, and warns that the pedal can become a means to covering up bad playing:

I have very clear memories of what Mme Mauté de Fleurville told me. He (Chopin) recommended practising without pedal and, in performance, not holding it on except in very rare instances. It was the same way of turning the pedal into a kind of breathing which I observed in Liszt when I had the chance to hear him in Rome. I feel Saint-Saëns forgets that pianists are poor musicians, for the most part, and cut music up into unequal lumps, like a chicken. The plain truth perhaps is that abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, and that making a lot of noise is a way to drown the music you're slaughtering! In theory we should be able to find a graphic means of representing this 'breathing' pedal...it wouldn't be impossible. Come to think of it, isn't there a work on the subject by Mme Marie Jaëll, who was severe in the matter of piano technique? [Lesure & Nichols p. 301.]

Debussy's works often implies the use of pedal, even if it is not explicitly written, because he writes bass notes that cannot be held without the help of the pedal. At the same time there are often chord changes that requires the pedal to be lifted in order to avoid blurring. Pianists often achieve a satisfying effect by using half pedalling, like Perlemuter recommends (Perlemuter didn't hear Debussy play, but studied with Ravel):

Something which is a guide-line for Ravel's music as well as that of Debussy: a light vibration of the foot on the pedal which, if successful, allows a bass note to be held through the changes of harmony. They quickly die away, leaving the bass note sounding at the end. [Perlemuter & Jourdan-Morhange p. 14]

There are however no sources that say explicitly that Debussy used this technique, but it is probable, because many mentions his refined pedal technique

There would still be cases where Debussy wanted a blurred sound, but only in certain places, as an effect. About a place in reflets dans l'eau, Dumesnil says:

Here, Debussy wanted the first measure all blurred in damper pedal (no soft pedal). The second measure with the soft pedal alone, as an echo heard from afar. [Dumesnil p. 16]

Dumesnil also writes, quite categorically, that runs, arpeggios and passages should be blured in pedal:

All runs, arpeggios and passages must always be treated from the “sonorous”, the “harmonic”, and the “vibrating” standpoint; never as a display of finger velocity. Therefore the damper pedal must be used very much when playing them. They must never be performed in a “neat and crisp” fashion, but literally drowned into what might be called a “wave of tone”. [Dumesnil p. 12]