I was quite young when I fell in love with the music of Claude Debussy. I didn’t know the theoretical reasons that made his music radically different from what came before. I only knew that it was beautiful and expressive and touched me in a special way.
Debussy is often considered the initiator of the Impressionist movement in music. Impressionist painters had recently made their break with earlier art traditions. They favored unconventional techniques like rough, short brush strokes and used them to create sweeping visual effects rather than realistically detailed representations.
Debussy strove for a similar break with musical traditions that he considered “barren.” He and other composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century challenged the accepted formulas of harmony and melody. Over time, they created music that was more free, with a more flexible form and flow than the music of their forebears; Impressionism had come to music. (As an aside, Debussy rejected the term “impressionism” as applied to his music, saying he was only trying to do something “different.”)
And of course the harp found a new importance through this music. The rich, liquid sound of the harp was and is ideally suited to the textures and musical colors of Impressionism. The harp is featured in the orchestral compositions of the time, and there is a wealth of chamber music using the harp as well, most importantly Debussy’s Sonate for flute, viola and harp.
As free and formless as this music sometimes sounds, it cannot be practiced and performed that way. I have seen many students with a love for this music dive into the mood and atmosphere of the music only to find themselves overwhelmed by difficulties. You can avoid those difficulties by following these five simple guidelines:
1. You need good technical control to be able to deliver on the promise of Impressionism. You can’t use the texture of the music to disguise technical flaws. If your technique isn’t up to snuff, practice your scales, arpeggios and chords. You will need them for this music.
2. Use your full palette of expressive tools: tone, touch, color, dynamics. The more expressive range you have, the more character you will be able to lend to the music. Unlike baroque music which most often has movements that are more unified in texture and color, impressionistic music changes character many times within even a very short piece. Think about the many colors of a prism in the light, and you will be on the right track.
3. You must pay attention to everything on the page. The composers of this era did their best to help the performer understand what was required to express their intention. This led to some unusual performance instructions. If you have ever played the music of Satie you might have seen instructions like “on the tip of the tongue,” and “questioning”. But even more common terms like cedez and pressez are ones you need to understand and observe. These instructions are the composers speaking directly to you, the performer. Listen to them.
4. Follow the phrasing. Always important, phrasing becomes a matter for real attention in this music, especially for us harpists. Playing so many of these works in transcription from piano music, we must play many progressions that are made up of chords one after the other. It is easy to get so wrapped up in the vertical – the necessity of playing all the correct notes in each chord – that we forget to play the horizontal melodic line that exists in moving from one chord to the next.
5. Make your rubato meaningful. It is understood that impressionistic music will require rubato. The mistake is in applying the rubato before you truly understand the music. The rubato loses some of its organic quality, and can feel artificial or superficial. One way around this is to practice regularly with the metronome and with counting to be sure that you understand the correct rhythm and timing. Then you can apply rubato that will feel genuine. Keep in mind that the rubato must always serve the music, not the performer.