Debussy: Where to Start?

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It’s all about Claude Debussy for classical music lovers and pianists in 2018, 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.

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.

In a recent editorial for 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 excellent 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.

Easy Piano Pieces and Dances

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:

  • Le petit nègre
  • 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 early advanced players (pre-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.

Le petit nègre, 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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

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 this volume from Bärenreiter offer a great place to start your pilgrimage through his oeuvre, whether as a teacher, a player, or both.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.