Eric Himy
Writings by Eric Himy

Homage to Debussy - CD Notes

Achille-Claude DEBUSSY
Born August 22, 1862, in St. Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, in Paris, France

“It is enough if music forces people to listen in spite of themselves. In spite of their daily cares… so that they think they have dreamt for a moment of a magic and therefore undiscoverable place.” Claude Debussy

Rising from very modest background, Debussy became one of the most important French composers of the early twentieth century. As an adult, he never spoke about his relatively unhappy childhood, and most of the events from his early years remain a mystery. Debussy's musical talent was discovered by his first piano teacher, Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who had been a student of Chopin. Interestingly, the Italian composer Alfred Casella, who was living in Paris, heard Debussy perform and said:

“It is one of the most happy and lively memories of my artistic life to have heard him play a number of Chopin's pieces, Chopin being a composer of his particular predilection and one whose every secret he marvelously divined. Until he informed me of this fact one day I was utterly unaware that in his youth he had worked long at the piano with a pupil of Chopin's, and he explained to me how considerable a part this instruction had played in his musical formation, not only as a pianist, but also as creator.”

It appears from this and several other similar accounts that Debussy’s playing had many characteristics of Chopin's approach : an extreme range of softer dynamics and nuances, a refined use of the pedals, a flexible free rubato which gave one an impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Debussy seemed to revel in his ability to improvise. The Scottish–American soprano Mary Garden, who was chosen by Debussy to create Mélisande in his Opera Pelléas et Mélisande, described a dinner visit from Debussy and his wife Lily:

“After dinner we used to go into the drawing-room; Lily and I would go into a corner and talk about things. Then Debussy would sit at the piano and for an hour or so he would improvise. Those hours stay like jewels in my mind. I have never heard such music in my life, such music as came from the piano at those moments. How beautiful it was, and haunting, and nobody but Lily and I ever heard it! Debussy never put those improvisations down on paper; they went back to the strange place they had come from, never to return. That precious music, lost for ever, was so unlike anything Debussy ever published. There was a quality of its own about it, remote, other-worldly, always saying something on the verge of words.”

During a visit to Hungary, Debussy became captivated by the gypsy musician. He wrote: “When you listen to these musicians you lose awareness of your surroundings...the gypsies' freedom, their gifts of evocation, of color and rhythm” showing that Debussy was aware of the important role of the musician in making the music come alive. The phrase “lose awareness of your surroundings” could suggest what Debussy's idea of a good performance of music required. Debussy often compared his music to improvisation and is claimed to have stated that he wanted to write music with a form so free that it would sound improvised. This provides an insight into how he wanted his music performed.

Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire when he was only ten years old. Within a few years, he shocked his professors with "strange and bizarre" harmonies that were flouting the rigid rules. "What rules then do you observe?" asked one of his teachers. "None, I follow only my own pleasure!" "That's all very well," retorted the professor, "provided you're a genius." It became increasingly apparent that the daring young man was exactly that. Debussy eventually developed his own musical language largely independent of Romantic 19th century style, influenced in part from the dreamy, often melancholic romanticism of the Symbolist Movement. Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé’s Symbolist gatherings. He disliked the comparison often made of his music with the Impressionist painters, since his work was far less representational. Music is abstract and much freer from the realistic imagery to which the visual arts are inevitably tied, and indeed he aligned himself with the Symbolist poets, who reveled more in the sound of words than in their actual meaning, seeking to suggest reality through a dream-world of metaphor and symbol.

Debussy appears to have portrayed his imagery much like the Impressionist paintings of misty atmospheres comprised of endless colors. Also, in the manner of the Impressionists, Debussy's work frequently suggests the open-air via its naturalness and spontaneity, suggesting his inspiration is derived from nature. Debussy wrote: "There is nothing more musical than a sunset, just listen to the wind" and he found the simple fluting of a shepherd to have more complex harmonies than many known music works. He claimed most music "was invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters" - Their attempts to copy out-worn formulas were only fit for the feeble-minded and he reproached musicians for reading too many treatises and seldom paying attention to nature, which he felt was the true source of inspiration.

Debussy, a post-Romantic, recognized that, in the end, music is different from other arts in that it is sound that produces meaning from itself, from the relationships of intervals, the rhythmic motion, and the various possible timbres of differing instruments. He understood the influence that extra-musical images could have on music: sunset, the sea, a moonlit evening, also colors and shadings of a painting or poem. Thus I have put together a sort of kaleidoscopic program intended to exploit the resources of the piano and hopefully reveal the many possible colors, nuances, perfumes and emotions which Debussy tried to communicate in his music.

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Stéphane Mallarmé's poem L'Après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), written in 1876, inspired Debussy, at about the time he turned 30, to conceive an orchestral work in three parts consisting of a Prélude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale. A performance was announced for Brussels in March 1894, but it did not take place, for Debussy never got beyond the most rudimentary sketches for the second and third sections. He decided to abandon them altogether and extended the Prélude in which he felt the character of Mallarmé's pastoral poem to be fully reflected. (Ironically, Mallarmé had stated that his aim was to emulate music). The name Prélude was retained as part of the title on the printed score (Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune).

Debussy may have been looking ahead, in his use of this term, more than 15 years to his two books of Préludes for piano, each similarly self-contained, with a title indicating a descriptive or evocative character. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, faun being that mythological creature, half-man and half-goat, is an exquisitely colorful mystical evocation of languid erotic longings on a sultry afternoon. Debussy used to describe it as a “series of tableaux, through which pass the dreams and desires of a faun in the heat of the afternoon.”

Although his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is considered the origin of modern music, Debussy actually seems to have been inspired by previous themes you may recognize, such as Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Flight of the Bumblebee, and even part of Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 27 no 2; however, his innovative use of rhythm, color and whole-tone scales are groundbreaking. Debussy's landmark orchestral work - with its rich harmonies predating jazz, inventive instrumental colorization, and seemingly static thematic development, all but ushered in the 20th century. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg proclaimed that "Faun has a place in musical history comparable to the Eroica Symphony and Monteverdi's Orfeo. Each of those epochal works made it clear that the old rules no longer applied." For example, the flute, in one of the most celebrated solo passages in the orchestral literature, begins this work with an evocation of the opening lines of Mallarmé's poem:

I would perpetuate those nymphs.
Their rosy
Bloom's so light, it floats upon air drowsy
With heavy sleep.
Was it a dream?

On March 25, 1910, Debussy wrote to his friend the writer Georges Jean-Aubry recalling Mallarmé's visit to him a short time before the premiere, to hear the Faune played on the piano:

“I lived in a little furnished flat in the rue de Londres . . . Mallarmé came in with his prophetic air and his Scotch plaid around him. After listening to it he remained silent for a long time, and then said, "I didn't expect anything like that. This music draws out the emotion of my poem and gives it a background of warmer colors.” And here are the lines Mallarmé wrote on a copy of L'Après-midi d'un faune which he sent me after the first performance”:

Sylvan of the first breath,
If your flute were successful
In hearing all the light,
It would exhale Debussy

In May 1912 Serge de Diaghilev presented Vaslav Nijinsky in the latter's ballet treatment of this music; it was the great dancer's first effort as a choreographer, and its primitive urgency made it both a bit of a scandal and a long enduring work. I recently made this transcription for piano and I hope you all enjoy the Himy Philharmonic of…one!

Debussy was fascinated with the sound of the piano, with the breadth of its range from highest to lowest tones, the myriad ways its pedals can manipulate the quality of the tone color, the brilliance within fast runs, the power of huge chords, and all the resonance of this very powerful instrument. His fascination with piano sound seems to have inspired the creation of his two books of Preludes at least as much as any poem or picture referenced in the pieces’ individual titles. In fact, Debussy placed his preludes’ titles at the end of each piece, not the beginning, which suggests they were, to some extent at least, afterthoughts. The Preludes are, essentially, experiments in sound.

Voiles (Book I)

Voiles (1909) is a word which denotes both "Sails" (feminine noun) and "Veils" (masculine noun) in French. Voilesalso carries connotations of "disguise" and "mask," and is used by painters to denote "canvas." This type of title opens up the meaning of the work, allowing for a multiplicity of interpretations. “Mysterious veils enveloping palpitating feminine forms, hiding eyes which fan desire by their devious glances” and “sailboats anchored to a fixed pedal-point (a low B-flat)” were descriptions given by Debussy. After hearing this prelude, one can understand the writer Léon Vallas who heard Debussy and wrote: “Debussy made one forget that the piano has hammers and he achieved particularly characteristic effects of timbre by the combined use of both pedals.”

Les Collines d’Anacapri (Book I)

“The Hills of Anacapri” captures the sensual color of Capri, Italy, the dazzling vivid blue sky, white rocks, shimmering Mediterranean Sea, and, the folkloric Neapolitan song and dance. The name Anacapri comes from the goats (Capri), the first inhabitants of the island.

La Sérénade interrompue (Book I)

With “The Interrupted Serenade” we are now in Granada, Spain, where a troubadour begins plucking his guitar to serenade a young lady, later evoking a plaintive Moorish melody... but he is constantly interrupted by competing music from a neighboring party, and finally leaves in great frustration, as perhaps his heart is no longer into it, or he has lost his will. A final note of despair is heard plaintively at the very end before our young serenader fades into the distance.

La Fille au cheveux de lin (Book I)

“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” is inspired by the poem of the same name by Leconte de Lisle. The mood is one of candor and innocence full of a young girl’s daydreams. It seems evoke images of beautiful red poppy and sunflower fields on a calm summer day in Provence.

La Cathédrale Engloutie (Book I)

“The Engulfed Cathedral” is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys during the fourth or fifth century because of the “impiety of its inhabitants,” is then allowed, only as example to others, to rise up from the sea on certain mornings at sunrise. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea. Interestingly in Debussy’s rare piano recording of this work, he seems to confirm a contrast between performing traditions of the early and the late 20th century. The performances of the early 20th century are volatile, energetic, flexible, rigorously projected in broad outline, but rhythmically informal in detail. Modern performances are, by comparison, accurate, orderly, restrained, deliberate and even in emphasis. The former was the performing climate that Debussy knew and felt.

Working on an edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes for Durand, Debussy advised against the inclusion of metronome markings, saying “You know what I think of metronome markings: they are alright for one measure, like those roses which only last for a morning.” In his recording he discreetly arpeggiates (rolls) chords liberally but not randomly. This rolling upward technique is used to create bell-like uplifting sonorities and is usually employed to announce the beginning of new harmonies and heighten the fluidity of the music. I have tried to emulate this approach by Debussy similarly here in hopes of capturing that feeling of movement and spontaneity, which is something Debussy always encouraged.

The second set of Preludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde. Sometimes he utilizes dissonant harmonies to evoke moods and images.

La Puerta del Vino (Book II)

“Gate of the Wine” is the name of one of the gateways to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and was written upon the receipt of a postcard of the Alhambra sent to Debussy by the Spanish composer, Manuel De Falla. With the intoxicating, sultry habanera rhythm of this work, we are bathed in the exotic Moorish atmosphere of Andalucía. Imagine, all this from a man who never even visited Spain!

Bruyères (Book II)

This prelude (“Heather”) incorporates or brings a touch of nostalgia, and evokes a pastoral setting, as in a painting of a hilly countryside with the purple-reddish sun setting on the lavender heather often seen in the coasts of Britanny, France.

Les Terrasses des audiences au clair de lune (Book II)

“The Terrace for Moonlight Audiences” creates a nocturnal atmosphere suggesting a mystical scene in a Hindu Palace. The title comes from a French newspaper account of Britain’s King George V being crowned Emperor of India in 1912. The title may be translated as balcony, or some other kind of platform from which a monarch could survey his subjects. But the ruler here seems to be the moon. Is it the moon that’s holding court? In this surreal dream caressed by moonlight, one gets the sense that time has stopped and many emotions are felt - delight, longing, unrest, tenderness and cold loneliness. But all are seemingly not of this world. This is one his most mysterious and magical preludes.

Ondine (Book II)

Ondine is an enticing, albeit rather teasing mermaid (the score is marked scherzando meaning playful) who lures unwary fishermen and sailors with her graceful, captivating singing and dancing to join her in her crystal palace at the bottom of the lake. In this Prelude Ondine, the sensation of water splashing is easily heard as is her hypnotic dance and song.

Canope (Book II)

Traveling on to “Canope” (Canopus) we find an ancient city in Egypt which gave its name to earthen burial urns containing organs of the deceased who were buried with the mummies. This prelude reaches back to an ancient time and place, evoking images of antique processionals, with an end seemingly lost in infinity. The pianist Claudio Arrau considered the piece to be one of Debussy's greatest preludes: "It's miraculous that he created, in so few notes, this kind of depth.”

Feux d’artifice (Book II)

With “Fireworks” we experience the excitement and energy of Bastille Day in France, a long day of military parades, dancing in the streets, loitering in cafes. Images of sputtering sparks from a Roman candle are vividly clear. Ingeniously at the end, through the smoke, a distant echo can be heard of the French National anthem: La Marseillaise. This last prelude uses the entire keyboard to depict a brilliant pyrotechnic display against the night sky and remains a landmark in piano writing.

La Soirée dans Grenade (1903)

Robert Schmitz, a French pianist who later immigrated to the United States, and who apparently had received thorough training from Debussy, wrote: “One evening in the middle twenties, Manuel de Falla, my dear friend, was sitting with Mrs. Schmitz and me at the Fouquet on Champs-Élysées in Paris, and I remember asking him which was the piano work he considered the most expressive of Spain. De Falla answered without any hesitation, “The Evening in Granada” which contains in a marvelously distilled way the most concentrated atmosphere of Andalucía.” He expressed his opinion officially in the Revue Musicale:

”The power of evocation integrated in the few places of the evening of Granada borders on the miracle when one realizes that the music was composed by a foreigner guided by the foresight of genius. There is not even one bar of this music borrowed from the Spanish folklore, and yet the entire composition in its most minute details, conveys admirably Spain.”

Poissons D’or ( 1907)

There is real disagreement about the inspiration for Poissons d’Or(“Goldfish”), but sources seem to concur that it was a piece of Japanese lacquer owned by Debussy which displayed a goldfish with its reflection on it. One can easily imagine the delicate finning of a whimsical and capricious goldfish captured so brilliantly by Debussy, with its colorful scales sparkling in the sun as it glides through the water. At one point you will sense a slight brush with danger; but all ends well for the little fish.

Maurice Dumesnil, a student of Debussy and later a noted Debussy scholar relates his experience of playing Poissons d'or for Debussy, and describes his frustration over not being able to understand Debussy's idea of rhythm and flow in this piece:

“With 'Poissons d'or' it was indeed difficult to satisfy Debussy: “Jouez plus librement”, he would repeat. I thought I did play with great freedom, but it was not enough. Toward the middle he spoke again: “Plus gracieux, plus elegant”. But when I complied, he said: “Jouez plus simplement”. I came to the conclusion that the interpretation of pianist Ricardo Viñes, to whom Poissons d'or is dedicated, had become inseparable from Debussy’s own conception; so I took it as a model and subsequently won approval.”

From this exchange one might suppose that Debussy wanted a large amount of freedom and suppleness in this piece (there even is the marking Souple at the beginning which means supple in French), and that it should by no means be played mechanically, but rather with a great natural flexibility.

Reflets dans l'eau (1905)

“Reflections in the Water” evokes the swirling play of light and water, and one could imagine the composer perhaps seeing his own reflection in the water. It is very improvisatory in character and gives a certain feeling of unpredictability and searching. Debussy did not always have a preconceived idea about how he wished his music was to be interpreted. If the pianist was convincing, then he might accept other interpretations. The following story as told by Maurice Dumesnil clearly shows this:

“Paderewski once featured Reflets dans l'eau on one of his programmes. Moved by curiosity, Debussy went to the recital. He was surprised when Paderewski played this piece daintily, with charm, with refinement, and with a pearly technique that would have better befitted a set of variations by Haydn and Mozart. “It was delightful”, he said to Paderewski. “Not at all what I had in mind, but please do not change an iota in your interpretation!”

The American pianist George Copeland, who came to Paris to study with Debussy, also claimed that Debussy would not force his interpretation on him and describes his account as follows:

“After playing Reflets dans l'eau for him, he asked me why I had played the last two bars in a certain way. “It's funny”, Debussy said reflectively, “That's not the way I feel them.” But when I said, “Then I will interpret them as you intended”, his reply was a definite “No, no! Go on playing them just as you do.'”

L'Isle joyeuse (1904)

“The Island of Joy” is without a doubt one of the most orchestral, passionate, rapturous, virtuoso works to come from Debussy imagination. Its inspiration, some say, is derived from one of Watteau’s painting “The Embarkment for Cythere” and the music most definitely captures in brilliant splashes the joyous mood and sensual atmosphere of the painting. The Bacchanalian nature and spirit transport the listener into a “land of love.”The melodies are imbued with the carefree atmosphere of the sunny Mediterranean ending in a final fiery feast of triumphant and vertiginous dance rhythms.

Beau Soir (arr. Berkowitz) 1879

"Beautiful Evening" is an exquisitely simple gem written by Debussy when he was only seventeen. It is an art song written and set to a poem by Paul Bourget. So just as I began the Homage to Debussy CD with a transcription I now end with another transcription arranged for piano solo by Ralph Berkowitz, a pianist born in New York City in 1910 who was the accompanist for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Berkowitz continued in that role for thirty years, appearing with Piatigorsky in recitals throughout the world until the cellist's death in 1972. Berkowitz was also executive assistant to Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood from 1946 to 1951. Paul Bourget’s poem Beau Soir is as follows:

When the rivers are rosy in the setting sun,
And a mild tremor runs over the wheat fields,
An exhortation to be happy seems to emanate from things
And rises towards the troubled heart.
An exhortation to enjoy the charm of being alive
While one is young and the evening is beautiful,
For we are going on, as this stream goes on:
The stream to the sea, we to the grave.

"I wanted from music a freedom which it possesses perhaps to a greater degree than any other art, not being tied to a more or less exact reproduction of Nature but to the mysterious correspondences between Nature and Imagination." Claude Debussy

Homage to Debussy CD

1) Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (arr. Himy)
2) Voiles
3) Les Collines d'Anacapri
4) La Sérénade interrompue
5) La Fille au cheveux de lin
6) La Cathédral engloutie
7) La Puerta del Vino
8) Bruyeres
9) Les Terrasses des audiences au clair de lune
11) Canope
12) Feux d'artifice
13) La Soiree dans Grenade
14) Poisson d'or
15) Reflets dans l'eau
16) L'île joyeuse
17) Beau Soir (arr. Berkowitz)