CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
French Pianist and Composer

Claude Debussy can be considered the first "modern" composer. He was to music what the Symbolists were to literature and the impressionists were to art, turning his back on traditional harmony and form. In a sense he was a musical heir of Liszt whom he admired greatly, by whom he was much inspired, and whose late piano pieces are anticipatory of aspects of Debussy's compositional style.

But what is little appreciated is the effect Debussy had on piano playing. He was a marvelous pianist and could very well have had a successful career as a concert pianist had he not chosen to devote his genius to composition. Harold Schonberg wrote in his book The Great Pianists, "(Debussy) added more to the piano than any composer since Chopin: new theories about pedaling, new ideas about sonority, a completely new concept of figuration and layout."

Debussy believed that his piano music should be played as though the piano did not have hammers, was not essentially a percussion instrument. His exploration of touch and tone, harmony and contrasts of register and their resultant vibration, led to the creation of a greatly expanded palette of tonal qualities and new expressive capabilities. And when his music is played as intended, the results are indescribable.

The following solo performances are taken from piano rolls made in 1913 and 1916. While they are not perfect reproductions of Claude Debussy's pianistic art, they do give a very good indication of his thoughts on how his music should be played. The acoustic recordings he made with Mary Garden give us a bit more of the sense of the tonal quality of his playing and the aura he evoked in his performances in spite of the poor accoustics.

Preludes Book I
1913 piano roll

1 "Danseuses de Delphes"

3 "Le vent dans la pleine"

10 "La cathédrale engloutie"

11 "La danse de Puck"

12 "Minstrels"

"Golliwogg's Cakewalk" 6 from Children's Corner Suite
1913 Welte Mignon piano roll

"Reflets dans l'eau"
1916 piano roll

Arabesque 2
1913 piano roll

"La soirée dans Grenade" from Estampes
1913 piano roll

"La plus que lente"
1913 piano roll

"D'un cahier d'esquisses"
1913 piano roll

Below we hear Claude Debussy at the piano accompanying the great Scottish-American soprano Mary Garden in three songs from his "Ariettes Oubliées" (forgotten songs) and the aria "Mes longs cheveux" from his opera "Pelléas et Mélisande". In addition to having a gorgeous voice, Garden was considered a phenomenal actress. She sang the title role in the world premeiere of Debussy's opera.

These are the only acoustic recordings of Debussy at the piano and date from 1904.

"Il pleure dans mon coeur"


"L'ombre des arbres"

"Mes longs cheveux"

Here is my new book, a murder mystery with a musical polemic

and the audiobook version

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