Debussy: Where to Start?

Sheet Music Review

It’s all about Claude Debussy for classical music lovers and pianists this year, as we mark the centenary of his death in 1918.

And rightly so! Because few composers have made such a seminal contribution to the pianist’s literature, or composed music which explores such a range of colour, tonal possibility and timbre from the instrument.

Later on in this review I will be taking a  look at the Bärenreiter Urtext edition of Debussy’s Préludes (1er Livre).

But first, what about players who aren’t yet sufficiently advanced for these masterpieces? For the developing pianist, the question often arises – where to start exploring Debussy’s rich, varied and substantial body of piano music?

The good news is that, while Debussy never wrote anything simple, his oeuvre does offer up plenty of music that suits pianists of early advanced, around Grade 5-8 level. And while many of these pieces are among the world’s most cherished, a few remain surprisingly less well-known.

Enchantment

In his editorial for the latest issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Oliver Condy fondly remembers his teenage efforts playing Debussy’s music at the piano:

“Playing his music was always so much fun – serious music that didn’t seem at all serious, jazz that our music teachers would instantly sanction. And Debussy’s innate skill of writing for the piano meant that everything fell nicely under the fingers. Maximum effect, minimum effort. Of course, I’m not talking about the harder pieces – oh no. But in general, I’ll always see Debussy as one of the most gracious of composers who understands that to be appreciated, it helps if performers don’t hate you from the start.”

There are several really well specified collections of Debussy’s piano music aimed at players at this “early advanced” level, but in this review I am going to focus on the Debussy: Easy Piano Pieces and Dances collection published by Bärenreiter back in 1999.

Easy Piano Pieces and Dances

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Debussy: Easy Piano Pieces and Dances is part of a larger series of publications from Bärenreiter aimed at intermediate to early advanced players, other volumes in the series including the superb collection of pieces by Martinů that I reviewed here.

Like that collection, Debussy: Easy Piano Pieces and Dances is beautifully presented, with a classy but understated look and feel. The simple cover, soft to the touch, encompasses the 32 page volume printed on cream paper, with well-spaced and pristine music engraving. Ample fingering to support players at this level is provided by Annette Töpel.

There are two reasons why I believe this collection is a brilliant place for players to start.

Firstly, this is a Bärenreiter edition, meaning that it is as beautifully produced as it is authoritatively edited, coming from a publisher whose many urtext editions and other great publications continue regularly to defy criticism.

And secondly, the selection of pieces here is wonderfully varied, encouraging the player to explore beyond the obvious favourites and experience a broader range of moods and characters, so providing an introduction to Debussy’s piano writing which is as varied as it is vivid.

The music itself is edited by Michael Töpel, who writes:

“This collection of piano music by Claude Debussy contains a selection of pieces that are technically easy to play. A mosaic of highly contrasting works, the collection aims to enrich the literature of music that is accessible to the beginning pianist.”

Full Immersion

The pieces chosen for inclusion are:

  • The little Negro
  • The little shepherd
  • Danse de la poupée
  • Danse bohémienne
  • Clair de lune
  • Page d’album
  • Rêverie
  • Arabesque 1
  • Élégie
  • Prélude (…Canope)

As previously suggested, these pieces are all suitable for players before Grade 8 level, and it is a boon to have a mixture of some of Debussy’s most famous and accessible pieces in one collection, together with some lesser-known pieces that will indeed enrich the repertoire for players at this level.

The little Negro, with its Cakewalk rhythm and happy-go-lucky mood, is a perfect start to the anthology, and has no doubt been the first piece of Debussy many a student player has attempted over the years.

Danse de la poupée, relatively unfamiliar, comes from the children’s ballet La Boîte à Joujoux (The Toy Box), and is another charming dance piece, as is the better-known (and more technically demanding) Danse bohémienne. Both pieces are deceptively challenging while remaining accessible and beautifully pianistic in their creative realisation.

Contrasting these more light-hearted dance pieces, The little shepherd from the much-loved Children’s Corner Suite is an established favourite which offers an exquisite introduction to Debussy’s more etherial music, and points towards the deeper mysteries of the later Prélude (…Canope), which concludes the book.

The lesser-known Élégie and Page d’album – concise miniatures which offer wonderful sonorities, and draw the player with ever-deeper consciousness into Debussy’s unique sound-world – are not to be missed. But many players will want to make a bee-line for the evergreen Arabesque 1 (at Grade 8 level, perhaps the most challenging piece here), Reverie – and of course, the inescapable Clair de lune.

All in all, the variety of the selections and the quality of the publication combine to make this a brilliant introduction to one of the great piano composers of all time. Not to be missed!

Préludes pour Piano (1er Livre)

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For those wanting to dig a little deeper into Debussy’s oeuvre (and really, who wouldn’t?!) we pianists are again spoilt for choice, with obvious suggestions being further exploration of the Children’s Corner Suite, the Suite bergamasque, and the first book of Préludes.

The Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the latter was published in 2014.

According to the publishers,

“Debussy links the 12 Préludes in his first book not by tonal scheme, but by means of a chain of associative mottos or titles which appear at the end of each piece and which may give a hint of the overall poetic content.”

Those 12 titles, for those not already familiar with the collection, are:

  1. (… Danseuses de Delphes)
  2. (… Voiles)
  3. (… Le vent dans la plaine)
  4. (… “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir”)
  5. (… Les collines d’Anacapri)
  6. (… Des pas sur la neige) 
  7. (… Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest) 
  8. (… La fille aux cheveux de lin) 
  9. (… La serenade interrompue)
  10. (… La Cathedrale engloutie)
  11. (… La danse de Puck)
  12. (… Minstrels) 

Much has been made of the way that Debussy added these titles at the end of each piece, rather than at the start, perhaps encouraging the player to engage with each piece on their own terms, without first being influenced by his titles.

A Comprehensive Resource

A number of unique features make this edition more than simply a sheet music publication.

Not least of these is the extended ten-page Preface written by the editor, Thomas Kabisch. As well as offering a general historical introduction to the work, and notes on the sources and the edition itself, this includes a detailed discussion of the “mottos” and titles of the pieces, an analysis of the meaning of each piece, and an excellent essay on the performance of Debussy’s piano music.

Still more unusually, there is a separate page of notes on the fingering written by Martin Widmaier (who also provides the fingering throughout the edition) and followed by 12 specially constructed Fingering Studies, each based on a specific passage from one of the Préludes but, as he explains:

“… they nevertheless go beyond the special aspect of the individual case. Since it is advantageous to fathom the purpose of such studies in playing, I have dispensed with explanatory commentaries.”

The 12 Fingering Studies offer a novel and potentially very helpful approach to the technical challenges presented in the Préludes themselves, and give this particular edition a unique (if unexpected) advantage.

Lastly, I can’t say how pleased I am to see a Glossary included, offering German and English translations of each and every French word and performance instruction included by Debussy in the Préludes. This is an invaluable time-saver, and hugely welcome.

As for the edition itself, this is as one would expect – exceptional. Kabisch has edited this Urtext edition based on the latest research findings, resulting in an authoritative publication.

With a clear layout, practical page-turns and Widmaier’s insightful fingerings, this well-and-truly lives up to Bärenreiter’s mission to offer ”The Musician’s Choice.

Conclusion 

As the centenary year progresses I am looking forward to exploring more editions of Debussy’s piano music, and sharing my thoughts with you here.

But these two volumes from Bärenreiter offer a great place to start your pilgrimage through his oeuvre, whether as a teacher, a player, or both.

OUTSTANDING

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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