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The Light of Claude Debussy

debussy2012The new year is rapidly approaching, so before the end of the Debussy-year 2012 we should take the chance to watch this film by Anthony Tobin, celebrating the genius of Debussy. It was shown by G. Henle Verlag during the Frankfurt Musik Messe, 2012, in connection with their release of three volumes of the complete piano works of Debussy.

“The World will Change in his Sound”
– The Light of Claude Debussy

This film is an exploration of the inspiration, imagination and visual influences behind Claude Debussy’s piano music from 1889-1915. It discusses how light, nature, and the visual stimulation Debussy experienced in Paris influenced his “vision” and the gestures and colors found in his piano works.

Consequently the footage is accompanied by Preludes for piano, Pagodes (filmed in Tokyo), Reflections on the Water, the First Arabesque, Clair de lune, Chansons de Bilitis and La Mer – works that will illustrate how Debussy changed the course of music.

Additionally, the film contains interviews with pianists Stewart Gordon and Daniel Pollack, Debussy scholars James Briscoe, Roy Howat, Marie Rolf, Richard Langham Smith, composer Manfred Bleffert and material with Austin Symphony Conductor Peter Bay, including discussion and demonstration of parts of the symphonic work La Mer.

More Debussy on film:
Ken Russell’s Debussy TV film from 1965
View part 1

Related articles:
Happy 150th Birthday, Claude Debussy!


Sit in on a Unique Class with Messiaen on Debussy and Colour

French composer Olivier Messiaen was a synaesthete who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia and in some scores he actually notated the colours, to help the performer in interpretation. Here is a unique video clip from one of his famous classes at the Paris Conservatoire.

A Naturalist’s Voice

From 1941 he became a teacher and lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire and held classes in analysis, theory, aesthetics and rhythm but it wasn’t until 1966 that he was officially appointed Professor of Composition (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years). Many famous names passed through these classes including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Alexander Goehr and later George Benjamin who Messiaen had a particular fondness and admiration of. Perhaps the one thing that rubbed off on all these composers is Messiaens’ avoidance of regular metre citing it as artificial (relating to marches and more popular music). Messiaen supports his argument by pointing out that in nature things are not even or regular. For example the branches of a tree and the waves of the sea are not even patterns. However, what is true is ‘natural resonance’, and this true phenomenon is what his music is based on.

Messiaen with students at the Paris Conservatoire

Messiaen with students at the Paris Conservatoire

Messaien’s wife (and former student) Yvonne Loriod said about their first encounter that “all the students waited eagerly for this new teacher to arrive and finally he appeared with music case and badly swollen fingers, a result of his stay in the prisoner of war camp. He proceeded to the piano and produced the full score of Debussy’s PrĂ©lude á l’après-Midi d’un Faune and began to play all the parts. The whole class was captivated and stunned and everyone immediately fell in love with him.” Messiaen never imparted his own compositional techniques in his classes but rather steered students along their own paths.

Messiaen on Synaesthesia

“When I was 20 years old I met a Swiss painter who became a good friend by the name of Charles Blanc-Gatti, he was synaethesiac which is a disturbance of the optic and auditory nerves so when one hears sounds one also sees corresponding colours in the eye. I unfortunately didn’t have this. But intellectually like synaethesiacs I too see colours- if only in my mind – colours corresponding to sound. I try to incorporate this in my work, to pass on to the listener. It’s all very mobile. You’ve got to feel sound moving. Sounds are high, low, fast, slow etc. My colours do the same thing, they move in the same way. Like rainbows shifting from one hue to the next. It’s very fleeting and impossible to fix in any absolute way.
It’s true I see colours, it’s true they’re there. They’re musician’s colours, not to be confused with painter’s colours. They’re colours that go with music. If you tried to reproduce these colours on canvas it may produce something horrible. They’re not made for that, they’re musicians colours. What I’m saying is strange but it’s true. I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn’t mix – natural colours created in the eye.”


Happy 150th Birthday, Claude Debussy!

Great piano composers’ anniversaries don’t normally take place annually, but since the Chopin & Schumann year 2010 and the Liszt celebrations 2011, time has now come for another immensely important composer.

Today, the 22nd of August 2012 marks the 150 years birthday of the French composer Claude Debussy, by many considered the father of “modern music”.

A New Musical Outlook

Debussy’s piano music is largely a study in miniature. Most of his material comes only a few decades after Liszt’s death, but is strikingly different. Gone are the thundering octave passages and incredibly rapid technique, leaving behind a collection of much simpler pieces that evoke startling images.
Where Liszt’s great innovation of composition was to through-compose pieces as a single stream of consciousness, Debussy contributed the Impressionist School of music. Although Debussy himself intensely disliked the term Impressionist when it was applied to his music, one cannot deny that his works closely match the ideas of the Impressionist School of art. Simple brushstrokes left undefined by Monet or Degas mirror Debussy’s motivic development. Debussy did not want to develop themes or melodies and preferred to develop snippets of musical information instead.

A Composer with a Painter’s Palette

Debussy generally paints his audio works with the strokes of a small brush, only rarely venturing beyond this microcosm of his ideas.
However, a short list of some of his works will serve to illustrate the immense variety of sounds and colors in this small-scale pianistic universe.

Both music and art evoke misty images of their subjects, capturing their essence instead of their details. This leaves much to the imagination of their observers. For example, Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow) is harmonically and melodically bleak and brittle. One can almost hear the crackle of ice and hear the moan of the frigid wind. Under the tinkling of the ice, a stubborn, plodding ostinato indicates the sullen tread of a weary, saddened traveler.

At the other end of the spectrum is La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), which charmingly depicts a dreamy, fair haired girl, completing its picture in only thirty-nine measures.

An example of a larger work, where Debussy also experiments with newer techniques of composition, is L’Isle joyeuse (The Happy Island). This piece explores the whole-tone scale, but also meanders back and forth through the lydian mode. It is worth noting the elision Debussy creates through these shifting tonalities, arriving triumphantly in A-Major for the recapitulation.

Finally, the somewhat neglected 12 Etudes not only stride purposefully through some of the most difficult playing a pianist must face – composed in 1915, they also provide a condensed summary of Debussy’s musical achievement.

Marcelle Meyer plays “Des pas sur la neige”
Walter Gieseking plays “La fille aux cheveux de lin”
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays “L’Isle joyeuse”
Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Etude No. 1 “pour les cinq doigts”
Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Etude No. 5 “pour les octaves”
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli plays La Cathédrale Engloutie

Debussy Challenge – Win a Piano Street Gold Membership

Which piano piece by Debussy is the exctract below taken from?
Send your answer to webmaster@pianostreet.com (use subject “Debussy Challenge”) before September 4, 23:59 GMT.
Among those who submit the correct answer we will draw five winners who receives a 1 Year Piano Street Gold membership (value $47).

UPDATE, Sept 10:
The correct answed is “Hommage Ă  Rameau”, no 2 from Images book 1
From the over hundred correct answers received the five winners are:
Y. Tsur, F. Colafelice, H. Bezzur, D. Chick and JP Roux

Debussy Revealed – The Anniversary Brochure

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth, Editions Durand Salabert Eschig has issued the brochure “Debussy revealed” with numerous testimonies and the participation of the ComitĂ© Debussy revealing the secrets of the Critical Edition of Claude Debussy Works.
Watch interview with Edmond Lemaître

Celebrate the anniversary with more links and resources!

Guest DJ: Decoding Debussy With Pierre-Laurent Aimard
To mark the Debussy sesquicentennial, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard stopped by at NPR to spin a few of his favorite Debussy recordings.

Where’s the Love for Debussy?
Pierre-Laurent Aimard on why Debussy Matters

The Debussy-Chopin Connection
Chopin’s influence on Debussy as he developed his own, utterly individual style

Debussy’s article “L’entretien avec M. Croche” (Conversation with M. Croche)
– from the Parisian literary and artistic journal “La revue blanche”, 1 July 1901

Steven Berryman: What was Innovative about Debussy’s Approach to Pianism?

Debussy’s first Arabesque with MAM-inspired piano score
An “eye-opening” experience! – Free download of Piano Street’s special colored piano score

Please post your congratulations and personal thoughts about Debussy and his music in a comment below.
…and, let us know how you are celebrating Debussy’s anniversary!


Impressive Expressions! – Blechacz plays Piano Music by Debussy and Szymanowski

Hailed by critics is this new release from young Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz born in 1985. At the age of 20 he won all five sections of the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He so impressed the judges that they awarded no second prize. Blechacz has previously recorded three albums for Deutsche Grammophon; Chopin Preludes, Chopin Concertos and Sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

NEW! Click the album cover to listen to the complete album:

(This is a new feature available for Gold members of pianostreet.com)

This time he gives us a recital of early 20th-century French and Polish music, pairing impressionistic pieces by Debussy with more expressionistic works by Blechacz’s compatriot Karol Szymanowski.
Blechacz is not really interested in the ongoing musicological discussion as to whether Debussy’s works are Impressionistic or not. He rather seeks a Debussy who is an Impressionist who has borrowed his structural virtues from Classicism and developed them a stage further. Totally aware of what Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin had achieved he was able to translate all of this into a language of musical modernism. That is why Rafal Blechacz describes Debussy as “the king of colours”.
Szymanowski is a composer Blechacz feels a tremendous affinity for and on the album he plays the C-sharp minor Prelude & Fugue of 1905 and the first Sonata of 1904. The intensity of expression was to mark Szymanowski’s later music, while at the same time nodding to the legacy of Chopin, the German Romantic tradition as well as Alexander Scriabin.

Debussy: Sarabande from Pour le piano

“This is an unforgettable disc from one of the pianistic giants of our time.”

— The Sunday Times

The album on DG: Rafal Blechacz plays Debussy and Szymanowski
Review from The Guardian


Nelson Freire’s Impressionist Affinity

Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire is among the truly great living musicians, and his remarkable musicianship continues to captivate the critics and charm the musical world. Winner of the Gramophone Recording of the Year in 2007 for his Brahms Piano Concertos. Nelson has a special affinity with Debussy’s music and his magical style perfectly suits these luminous works key French piano repertoire, including the famous Children’s Corner and Clair de lune. Recording this Debussy repertoire for the first time on CD, Nelson Freire s soulful interpretation of these expansive impressionistic jewels of the 19th century is eagerly awaited.

“Nelson Freire, the legendary Brazilian pianist and longtime musical partner of Martha Argerich, turns to Debussy. In the accompanying notes he confesses to a special empathy for Debussy and you will be hard pressed to find a recital of comparable warmth, affection and finesse. Here, there is no need for spurious gestures and inflections; everything is given with a supreme naturalness and a perfectly accomodated virtuosity that declare Freire a master pianist throughout. When have you heard ‘Voiles’ given with a greater sense of its mystery or witnessed playing throughout Book 1 of the PrĂ©ludes more delicate, rapt and precise? There is lightly worn fantasy and expertise in ‘La sĂ©rĂ©nade interrompue’ and the direction ProfondĂ©ment calme (dans une brumedoucement sonore) is distilled into something close to perfection. Always Freire ‘evokes rather than spells out’ and has one every heard a more subtle or engaging way with ‘Dr Gradus ad Parnassum’ (from the Children’s CornerSuite). Clair de lune, added, as it were, as an encore, is dreamy and magically remote, making you long for further Debussy from this artist. Decca’s sound is warm and brilliant.”

– The Gramophone Classical Music Guide

Debussy PrĂ©ludes book 1 – Nelson Freire

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Debussy Preludes, sheet music to download and print:

Link to Amazon


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