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Gabriela Montero – Uniting the Worlds of Composition and Improvisation

While there’s some element of improvisation (interpretation is probably a better word to describe it) in all performances of classical piano music, pianist Gabriela Montero takes this to a different level by taking requests from the audience and improvising her show. Read more >>

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Author Topic: Please help with Debussy's Flaxen Hair  (Read 9128 times)
leucippus
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« on: August 31, 2006, 04:43:10 AM »

I've decided to start learning Debussy's prelude # 8 from his book I.

I guess this is more popularly known as "La fille aux cheveux de lin"  or "The girl with flaxen hair".

I'm a raw beginner and I'm not familiar with music theory, but I want to try to analyze this piece a little bit before starting in on it.  Especially since it has 6 flats which I'm not used to.  In fact, I seldom play in keys with more than two sharps or flats.

So my first idea was to learn the scale for this key.  But what key is it?  Gb major, or Eb minor?

Which scale(s) should I practice? Gb major, Eb minor (melodic), Eb minor (harmonic)?

How do you analyze and approach a piece when you're a complete klutz at music theory like me?

I do have every intention of leaning and studying music theory this winter, but what can anyone suggest for right now, other than to forget about trying to learn this piece all together.  Grin
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piano sheet music of Prelude - La fille aux cheveux de lin
kriskicksass
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« Reply #1 on: August 31, 2006, 04:54:55 AM »

This piece is in G-flat Major, but with some serious pentatonic inflections. Analyzing Debussy's music is neither for the beginner not the faint of heart. He uses so many colorful harmonies, but many of them fall out of major/minor tonality, venturing into church modes, modes of limited transposition, and beyond.

Besides, for your purposes, there's no reason to analyze this piece of music. Read very carefully, and spend time with each phrase figuring out the hand position and how it works with the fingers. One of the great joys of Debussy's piano music is Debussy's absolutely clean style of piano writing. Nothing is awkward in his writing, no matter how virtuosic it may get. If you spend time figuring out how to play the piece, it will become one of those pieces that seems to play itself.

Good luck!
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leucippus
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« Reply #2 on: August 31, 2006, 05:23:28 AM »

Thanks Kriss,

I'm not worried about analyzing it in depth.  I'm just trying to get a feel for what scale or scales to practice.  I really just want to play it rather than analyze it, but I'm not used to playing with so many flats.  I figure I better practice the scale for the key before I begin at least.

I'll start with Gb major and maybe practice the Eb minor scales too anyway just to get a feel for the differences.

If you spend time figuring out how to play the piece, it will become one of those pieces that seems to play itself.

That's nice to hear.  At my skill level I can use stuff that will play itself.  Grin
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leucippus
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« Reply #3 on: August 31, 2006, 06:34:26 AM »

I see what you mean.

I already got the first 3 measures down and the fingering is working out very naturally.

Playing this piece is going to make me feel like a real pianist. Grin
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leucippus
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« Reply #4 on: September 01, 2006, 01:50:11 AM »

Pedal Question

Ok, up to this point in my pianistic life I haven't really used the sustain pedal much.  There's no pedal markings on the score for this piece, but I'm thinking they are probably used between these chords as a standard practice.  Otherwise they would sound jerky.

I mean even my midi file of this piece sounds like it’s using pedal. Grin

Do you use pedal to merge the chords when playing this piece?   That's directed to anyone who plays this. Wink
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kriskicksass
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« Reply #5 on: September 01, 2006, 07:13:05 PM »

Debussy was quoted as saying that he never gave pedal indications because he felt that pedaling was too fine an art to convey on paper and that too many subpar pianists simply use the pedal to hide the fact that they are butchering the music.

That being said, Debussy's music contains many rich harmonies and polytonal passages that can only be realized with rather liberal use of the pedal. To say to change on the harmonic shifts in this piece would be a little challenging for you, especially so because it is pentatonic in nature. Instead, use your ear and your best musical judgment to decide where to change pedals.

As a matter of personal preference, I don't like any passage in this piece completely dry, but there are an infinite number of pedal effects that come into play in Debussy's music. The best way to find out what works for you is to experiment.
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robertp
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« Reply #6 on: September 01, 2006, 08:40:08 PM »

Can't better what Kriss has written! Just some expansions....

I've never found learning the scales of a piece I'm doing to be of much help. But I do about 30 minutes of scales & apreggios daily, and work my way regularly through The Twenty Four  Grin. Nevertheless, looking at Debussy can be unnerving. Utterly pianistic, but not in the usual ways. An enormous amount depends of the pianist's musicality. Indeed, I'd said for many the difficulty is not in getting the notes out, but getting the music out.
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leucippus
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« Reply #7 on: September 01, 2006, 09:43:57 PM »

Thanks Kriss and Robert,

I was thinking pretty much along the same lines as what you both have said.  I guess I just needed some conformation.  So I thank you both for responding.
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leucippus
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« Reply #8 on: September 04, 2006, 06:52:07 AM »

I'm trying to learn a little music theory whilst learning this Debussy piece. 

I took a very simple online beginners lesson on music theory at the 8 notes web site.  There I learned how to build all the triads for a given scale.   So since this Debussy piece is in the key of Gb major I decided to build up the triads for that scale.

I did that here.




Then I went to analyzed the piece. It appears to me that the chords used in the measures 5 and 6 shown in the graphic below are:

Db Major
Bb minor
Eb minor
Gb Major
Db Major

which are all in the original scale analysis, but then the next two chords appear to me to be,..

Bb Major
Eb Major

Is that correct?



What are Bb Major and Eb Major doing in a piece in the key of Gb Major? 

I mean they obviously sound good, but what gives?  What was the original triad analysis all about? 

It appears to me that anything goes?  Sad   

Why even bother analyzing music theory if you can do anything you want?

Or am I making some kind of mistake here?
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leucippus
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« Reply #9 on: September 04, 2006, 06:56:31 AM »

Re-writing Debussy  Grin

I found it quite physically impossible to play the final chord of measure 6 so I rewrote the chord as shown below.  This sounds just fine to me.  Can anyone actually play the chord the way it is originally written?  I just can't imagine anyone playing that chord with just two hands.


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counterpoint
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« Reply #10 on: September 04, 2006, 07:27:31 AM »

Quote
Why even bother analyzing music theory if you can do anything you want?

That's what Debussy said himself.  Grin

But nonetheless, there are relations between chords. In your example, the "trick" of Debussy is to use a major chord instead of a minor chord (with same base note) and vice versa.

The other problem:

Debussy sometimes writes "unplayable" chords. It's clear, that the notes can't be played simulaneously, so you have to play them consecutively and use pedal to hold the notes. I play the lowest two notes alone and then the rest of the chord all together.
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If it doesn't work - try something different!
leucippus
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« Reply #11 on: September 04, 2006, 08:02:17 AM »

Debussy sometimes writes "unplayable" chords. It's clear, that the notes can't be played simulaneously, so you have to play them consecutively and use pedal to hold the notes. I play the lowest two notes alone and then the rest of the chord all together.
Ok, I never thought of using the pedal in that way.  Although I have been using the pedal quite effectively already in this piece.

Even so, I think I'll stick with my re-write.  I kind of like it now.  It just feels right and has a nice full bodied sound.  I actually only dropped the base Eb and replaced it with a higher octave Eb and then added a second G in the treble section to kind of help fill in the "base sound" and it seems to work quite well.

I might try the pedal method too though just to see what that feels like.  I'm already getting a feel for how Debussy plays.  He does seem to take a very natural path and just let things evolve in the most natural way.
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kriskicksass
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« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2006, 10:31:22 PM »

You might turn a few heads if you perform it with that alteration. Debussy was absolutely fascinated with the sonorities of the piano, and writing chords in widely spaced intervals was one of the many ways he experimented with piano sounds. I don't remember who it was, but someone important has been quoted that every note in Debussy is as important as the notes in Mozart. You should think long and hard before you make any changes.

As the for "wrong" chords, it seems to me that Debussy is writing in e-flat minor in this passage. Excuse my rusty theory, but I'm pretty sure the passage is going like this:

VII - v - i - III - (vi) V - I

Now this requires a bit of explanation. In the minor mode, the seventh and third degrees are major chords and the fifth and tonic are minor. Common chord progressions allow motion from 7 to 5 to 1, which serves as a cadence in e-flat minor; however, Debussy immediately continues motion to 3, which is allowed in common chord progressions and continues the harmonic motion. 3 moves toward 6, but Debussy 'borrows' the b-flat major chord from the major mode, which causes the b-flat to change from a submediant (6) to a dominant (5), which forces motion immediately to tonic (1). By borrowing the major chord to serve as a dominant, Debussy modulates from the minor mode to the major mode basically in one chord. It's harmonic genius!

I hope that helps. (By the way, can someone check my theory for me? I'd hate to have it be wrong and have the original poster learn bad stuff just because I'm rusty.)
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leucippus
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« Reply #13 on: September 04, 2006, 11:09:42 PM »

I hope that helps. (By the way, can someone check my theory for me? I'd hate to have it be wrong and have the original poster learn bad stuff just because I'm rusty.)
I think your safe.  It's been my experience in life that nothing is that firm or carved in stone anyway so there will always be exceptions to rules.

I'm just trying to get a general idea of some basic music theory to see if it might help me with my own compositions. 

Whilst I'm studying and learning to play this Debussy piece, I'm also toying with writing my own piece in Gb Major, or possibly even in Eb minor since I'm not quite sure how this all works.  I do know that composers do float around between keys during a piece.  However, I've read somewhere that if you start in a certain key the piece needs to end on that same key.

I'm not to worried about turning heads.  I'm not studying piano to become a performer. I also believe that a performer (being the artist) should always feel free to put his or her own expression into a peice.  My goal is never to merely duplicate what traditionalists believe it should sound like.

This is especially true with Beethoven's Für Elise that I'm currenly learning.  One of the reasons that I'm learning it is because I have never heard it played the way I feel it should be played.  Eveyrone always plays it too fast IMHO.  It always sounds to me like they are racing to get it over with.   I'm quite certain that when I finally have finished learning the piece everyone is going to tell me that I play it too slow.  But as far as I'm concerned that's merely the way I feel it should be played if they don't like it too frigging bad. Grin

I know that a lot of people get used to hearing pieces done a certain way and they bulk when someone plays them differently.  I think Hilary Hahn is a good example of this in the Violin world.  A lot of people claim that she doesn't play the Bach partitas and sonata "correctly".  As far as I'm concerned she's the ONLY one who got them right and all the other violinists throughout history are the ones who are playing them wrong. Wink

Anyway, I do appreciate your explanation about the Eb minor chord progression.  I'm thinking that I need to analyze this piece for Gb Major, Eb minor (harmonic) and Eb minor (medolic) and probably jumbled them all together as being all simultaneously possible.

Like I say, my main concern is to learn a little bit about how to use music theory to help me decide what I can use to compose new pieces.  The best way for me to do that is to try to understand how other composers have put their pieces together.


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leucippus
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« Reply #14 on: September 08, 2006, 02:59:34 AM »

Ok, this may seem silly to some, but I'm just trying to make sense of things here.

I've listened intently to several recordings of this piece and as far as I can tell everyone is playing it like I have written below.  In fact, I've actually played this modifed score using a midi sequencer and it sounds exactly like how everyone is playing it.



So I guess I'm just a little disappointed that music isn't written how it's actually played.

If the base E note is suppose to be played first why not explicitly write it out as such? 

Just seems to me that this is laziness on the part of the composer to pay attention to the details.

Dropping the base note from a chord is one thing.  Removing an entire "lone note" is another.  As far as I'm concerned, the recordings that I've heard play that E-note so distinctly separate from the rest of the chord that it's basically a note all by itself out in front of the chord.

So now I see why it would be a "head-turner" if missing.  It's not just a note missing from the chord, it's a note missing from the piece!  It has acquired a life of it's own!  Shocked
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arbisley
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« Reply #15 on: September 08, 2006, 06:15:40 PM »

It's just as you said earlier on, the chord is impossible to play in one go, it has to be divided, although I couldn't vouch for everyone playing the bottom note with it's own importance. That could be because they lay importance on the bottom note of the chord, and let the rest fit in between for the colouring.
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arbisley
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« Reply #16 on: September 08, 2006, 06:17:10 PM »

Oh, and then on top you play the rest of the chord when you've got to the top with the other hand, because it isn't spread, and you still want to be playing the majority of the chord together.
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arbisley
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« Reply #17 on: September 08, 2006, 06:26:36 PM »

Debussy was actually known to be extremely precise in his notation, as for example he sent a copy back to an editor for somthing like a forgotten staccato dot!

By the way, I have a recording of a performer who play the chord spread from the bottom, and then the top chord together on the last note. Here it is.

Flash mp3 player

* 3-08 La fille aux cheveux de lin.mp3 (2452.72 KB - downloaded 275 times.)
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leucippus
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« Reply #18 on: September 08, 2006, 08:11:57 PM »

Ok, well that's a nice recording that I haven't heard yet.

I'm beginning to see the bigger picture now.  It's pretty much up to the artist who's playing the piece how he or she would like to play it.   And since Debussy himself wrote it in a form that is physically impossible to play then he's left it entirely open to the individual pianists to play it however they like.

That's cool.   Then however I decide to play it will ultimately be ok because it's my choice. Grin

See, this is the difficulty for a newbie to be learning a new piece.  It's impossible to practice it before I've even made up my mind precisely how I'd like to play it.   I was originally practicing it the first way I re-wrote it (dropping the base E-note altogether).   That actually doesn't sound bad to me at all.  I kind of like it.  But now I'm going to experiment with different ways of playing it until I find the way that I like the best.   I guess I have time to decide.

In the meantime I'm getting these first six measure down pretty good. I still can't play it as fluently as I would like simply because I'm not used to playing chords, but it's coming along fairly well actually.  I'm ready to move on to learn some more measures.    I used the bit-and-pieces method for learning because I'm simply unable to play the piano yet. Grin

I am learning sight-reading methods from square one.   But if I had to wait until I can play something like this Debussy piece by sight-reading it I wouldn’t be ready to tackle it for several years I'm sure.  So I'm going to continue with the bits-and-pieces method of learning it whilst I simultaneously play things like "Itsy bitsy spider" to learn sight-reading.  Sad

Thanks for posting that recording.  That's a nice one.  Wink
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arbisley
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« Reply #19 on: September 09, 2006, 03:17:22 PM »

My sight-reading is appaling, and I could never sight-read any of the pieces I'm playing at the moment, particularly not the Debussy "Jardin sous la Pluie" I played recently.

As you say, it's quite difficult to know how you want to play something before you can even play it, that's where a teacher is fairly useful!
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pianohenry
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« Reply #20 on: February 11, 2007, 09:38:54 PM »

Re-writing Debussy  Grin

I found it quite physically impossible to play the final chord of measure 6 so I rewrote the chord as shown below.  This sounds just fine to me.  Can anyone actually play the chord the way it is originally written?  I just can't imagine anyone playing that chord with just two hands.




in the recordings ive heard, the bottom TWO notes are played first, (the e flat and the b flat, THEN the G and B flat higher up. youre not supposed to be able to play them at the same time.

the effect of playing it like this is sort of a "half" arpeggiated chord; slightly broken up from the bottom upwards. the right hand can be played as a block chord or arpeggiated. I think debussy does this quite often in his music; in the sarabande from suite pour le piano, there are some huge chords which are played like this - stops the music sounding too heavy, and breaks the chord up slightly so it sounds lighter.
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cjp_piano
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« Reply #21 on: February 17, 2007, 09:43:55 PM »

Kriskicksass is exactly right about Debussy writing precisely the way he wanted it to sound, so deciding to just leave out the low Eb completely changes the sound of the chord, especially because of the V-I cadence (Bb to Eb), he wanted the chords in root position. . . It's fine if you like how it sounds as an inversion, in fact in won't sound bad at all, it's just not how it's supposed to sound  Grin 

I prefer to play the bass note WITH the RH chord, and roll the rest of the LH quickly but gently.  I'm actually playing this in a recital next week, several teachers are playing the first 12 Debussy preludes and all the Chopin preludes in a "Prelude" recital . . it will be fun!

As far as the "scale" of the piece?  It has 6 flats and ends with a Gb major harmony, so yes, it's Gb major. . . But there are pentatonic elements in it as well, as Kris said.  There really aren't any sections in Eb minor, but there are brief excursions to Eb Major and Cb Major.

But let's not analyze it too much, for Debussy himself said,

"Let us maintain that the beauty of a work of art must always remain mysterious; that is to say, it is impossible to explain exactly how it is created . . . let us not attempt to destry or explain it."   Grin (from Debussy Letters, Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols, ed.
 
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mknueven
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« Reply #22 on: January 27, 2008, 12:27:33 AM »

For some reason I cannot view the musical examples posted - what measure are you discussing?
or which ones?

Why not analyze the piece first?
If you don't know how - that's one thing -
This is what really gets me with a lot of musician frends - when I try to analyze something they say - oh, let's not go overboard.
And then when you don't analyze it - they wonder why.

anyone know what I'm talking about here?
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