This week we celebrate the birthday of composer Claude Debussy, born on August 22, 1862. Although Debussy himself would be 156 years old this week, his music still sounds as fresh and magical as it did when he composed it.
And his music still poses problems for many musicians. I have worked with numerous students who, on their first encounter with a piece by Debussy, are puzzled and perplexed. They have difficulty reconciling the free, unregulated sound of the music with the explicit directions written on the page. They find the simple clarity of the music surprisingly challenging to achieve.
And they resist the idea that creating that seamless and fluid musical magic requires a very disciplined approach.
In my teaching, I use Debussy’s music as a rite of passage. Although music by other composers particularly some harpist composers like Renié, Grandjany and Hasselmans raises similar issues, I find that Debussy’s music presents a bigger challenge.
Until we study Debussy, learning music is largely a process of learning the notes and then adding the musicality. While I advocate strongly for incorporating expression from the very first in music practice, often a certain level of mastery of the notes must be achieved before adding musical subtlety.
When a student is ready to begin a piece by Debussy, she has developed her expressive tools and can see and sense the potential for musical expression in the pieces she plays.
But even advanced students often mistakenly believe that to evoke the fluid atmosphere of Debussy’s music requires a different approach to learning the piece. In fact, a successful interpretation of any piece by Debussy relies mainly on following his directions.
Debussy left little guesswork for the performer. His directions are written on the page. The meter, the note values, the dynamics, the phrasing are just as important as in music by any other composer. In addition, Debussy adds information about the affect, or feeling, of passages in the music and markings about tempo changes from passage to passage. Terms like cedez help the performer know when to relax the tempo at the end of a phrase. All the directions are there; the performer’s job is to follow them.
I suggest these five steps to any musician beginning to learn a piece of Debussy’s (or any piece for that matter):
Be sure you understand everything marked on the page. This is the only way the composer is able to convey his intention to a performer. You owe it to the composer to try to figure out what is meant by a particular marking.
Build the foundation for musical magic by practicing with the metronome, especially at first. Your expression will develop from a solid mastery of what is written.
Study recordings by the masters. Performances by famous musicians will give you different but equally compelling ideas of the piece. Take notes of the distinguishing characteristics of each. Consider how you might incorporate some of these in your own version.
Plan your expression. Try to explain to yourself in words what you want to achieve with your expression and how you will accomplish it.
As you keep deepening, expanding and exploring the musical possibilities of the piece over time, do an occasional check with the metronome to keep the foundation solid.
Incidentally, you will find this process equally effective with a piece by Bach, proving that your approach to Debussy’s music does not need to be any different at all!