What do you think of when you think of Claude Debussy’s music? Is it the sweeping surge and play of the waves of La Mer? The clarity of his piano preludes? The many moods and colors his music can evoke?
I love playing Debussy’s music. It challenges me to be my most expressive, and at the same time, use my cleanest technique. And the musical rewards it offers for doing my best are second to none.
But there’s no question that playing anything by Debussy is a challenge, whether it’s a short piano transcription, or the Danses. And I have noticed that many students, when they are first able to learn his music, have no idea of the difficulties in Debussy’s music or even how to make the beauty come through.
Here is a quick 10 point checklist of things to consider as you practice your favorite Debussy work:
1. The music is more rhythmic than you think. Much of Debussy’s music makes you feel that time is standing still. But Debussy achieved that free-form expressive quality by carefully composed written rhythmic distinctions. In other words, he put the directions on the page for you to follow. Count carefully. Your rhythmic expression will be overlaid on the foundation that he wrote for you.
2. Follow the melodic line. This comes more naturally to players of single-line instruments, than to many harpists and pianists. However, the melody line is where the “sweep” is.
3. Watch the inner notes. Perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of Debussy’s music is his use of harmonies. This was part of what made his music so revolutionary at the time he was writing. Make sure that every note in every chord speaks.
4. Consider the era he came from. Remember his music was an outgrowth and a departure from what came before. Approach his music with 19th century ears, not 21st century ones for a new perspective.
5. The devil is in the details? Perhaps, but Debussy certainly is in the details. And the more you look for, the more you find.
6. Learn the language. Look up any of those French terms that are unfamiliar. Learn not just what they mean literally, but how they were used musically. And then enjoy the ambiguity.
7. Think of the piece as a whole. Often, especially with his shorter works, the piece will seem to be a succession of very short sections. Your job is to find the continuity in the music and make it flow.
8. Color. Impressionism is all about color. Use your repertoire of tone, dynamics and touch to create a diverse musical palette.
9. Technique and control required! All this musicality can only be achieved through a solid technique. Don’t ignore your etudes.
10. Playing a transcription? Whether you play the double bass, the harp or the accordion, you can still play Debussy’s beautiful piano solid like Clair de Lune. Strive for a balance between Debussy’s original work and what is idiomatic for your instrument. Some things to keep in mind: sound quality, legato, tone color, and tempo.
My favorite Debussy piece to play? The Sonata for flute, viola and harp. What’s yours?