DEBUSSY AND HIS DANCES:
HOW DID HE WANT THE FIRST PAGE PLAYED?
By Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Harp
Society Winter 2000 Issue, Vol. 127, No. 4.)
It would be wonderful if printed music could tell us every
nuance, every shift, every texture, that a composer intended for his piece.
Or if all of the subtleties of a performance by a great artist, known for
his interpretation of this or that composer, could be notated and passed
down, right on the paper, from one generation to the next. How to make a
particular crescendo or decrescendo. How much to linger over a note in a
Unfortunately, musical notation is not that subtle, nor specific.
And for this reason, we seek out the great artists of our generation, to
learn that which cannot be written down, cannot be communicated by any means
other than the oral tradition.
Composers of the 18th century depended almost entirely on
this tradition to communicate how their pieces were to be performed. Virtually
nothing but the notes were written down, and even then, the rhythms were
often notated differently from the way they were actually to be played.
Louis Couperin, (uncle of the great Francois, and himself a terrific composer),
says in his treatise ‘The Art of playing the harpsichord,’ “
It’s no wonder foreigners have such a difficult time playing our (French)
music. It isn’t written the way it’s played.”
It was only in the 19th century that composers began to concern
themselves more extensively with interpretative details to help the performer.
These dealt primarily with tempo and dynamics, and then only in a vague
and haphazard way. By the early 20th century however, composers, and in
particular the Impressionists, had become far more precise, indicating,
as well as notation allows, how virtually every note of the piece is to
be played. One can play Debussy’s Claire de Lune almost with a metronome,
playing everything exactly as it says on the page, and the result will be
the smoke and mirrors that we all know and love. But even for Debussy there
were limits as to what could, and could not be notated. And because of this,
the opening measures of his Dances are problematic.
At first glance they appear to be nothing more than a series
of chords, to be rolled in a harpistic way. But where is the melody? Is
it the lowest note, or the highest? Does each arpeggiated chord start on
the beat, and therefore continue after? Or does each chord anticipate the
beat, so that the top note of each chord lands on the beat? And then, starting
in measure 17- where, it appears, chords alternate with octaves-how does
the player get all six beats to sound like an even melody line? More will
be mentioned on these measures later on.
Frequently when I hear the Dances performed, all rhythmic
clarity is lost on the opening page because of the way the chords are arpeggiated.
The harpist approaches this lovely sequence as if it had been written by
Fauré or Pierné instead of Debussy, and the result is a cumbersome
and blurry opening statement, devoid of a clear and rhythmic focus, and
lumpy and lopsided as the chords alternate with octaves.
There was an eye witness who coached with Debussy on the Danses,
and who therefore had direct access to the great composer’s thoughts
on this subject, and that was Pierre Jamet. In a wonderful video that was
made about him when he was 97 years old, he alludes to this problem of the
opening page. But first, the story of how this meeting of the minds came
I think that all of us who studied with Pierre Jamet, were
we to assemble together in a great room, could recite this story in unison,
with very little variation from one person to the next. Jamet loved to tell
it, and we all heard it, usually numerous times. What follows is a much
more detailed account, taken from the Pierre Jamet memorial edition of the
Bulletin de L’Association Internationale des Harpistes et Amis de
la Harpe that was published after his death.
In 1917 Jamet met Rose Féart, a singer at the Paris
Opera and a well known interpreter of Debussy’s songs. “My boy,
how would you like to meet Debussy?” she asked him. What a question!
But it would take more than one intermediary to set up a meeting with the
great composer. Féart passed her request to Jean Aubry, a journalist
at the Figaro, and a friend and correspondent of Debussy.
Debussy had recently written his sonata for Viola, Flute,
and Harp, and had heard it performed only once, at a private concert at
his publisher Durand. The performance featured chromatic harpist Susanne
Dallies, Darius Milhaud on Viola, and Albert Manouvrier on flute. But Debussy
really wanted to hear his piece played on pedal harp. Years later, Aubry
reported that Debussy had said,”I’d like to hear my sonata played
on something other than that horrible instrument. I want an Erard harp!”
Jamet had been working on the piece with the same flutist
as the private concert, and Sigismond Jarecki on viola. Debussy was told
of this and was anxious to hear them, so a meeting was arranged. Rose Féart
offered some sobering last minute advice. “Make sure you are well
prepared,” she said. “If its not well prepared, he’ll
simply get up and leave, without even saying good-bye!”
On the appointed day, they went to Debussy’s home at
80 avenue du Bois-du-Boulogne(currently 60 avenue Hoche), to play the Sonata.
Needless to say, they were nervous. Debussy was very hospitable, and they
played. He said nothing, letting them play all the way through. When they
had finished, he asked them to play it a second time. This time, he stopped
them from time to time to coach them, to tell them what he wanted, to give
them advice on the tempos he wanted. Debussy spent considerable time discussing
the harp part at the beginning of the Final. He wanted the effect of a Tambourin*
and experimented along with Jamet, with different ways of accomplishing
this. The solution, which enchanted Debussy, was to play the notes using
enharmonics. (Double the first note of each measure, playing E sharp/F natural,
and then alternate right and left hand through the rest of the measure.)
After this second run-through, Debussy, smiling, and in the presence of
his wife, asked them if they would like to play the sonata at one of the
concerts that he had organized to benefit the Red Cross war effort. Needless
to say, they were delighted, and so they played at the first of Debussy’s
concerts. It was at Laurent, on the Champs-Elysées on March 20, 1917.
Also performing that night were Rose Féart and the pianist Walter
As the next concert approached, the singer fell sick, leaving
a gaping hole in the program. Debussy contacted Jamet and asked if he could
play the Danses. This request was made on a Friday, and Debussy asked Jamet
to rehearse with him on the following Tuesday.
It must be interjected here that the Danses had been composed
only 13 years earlier, and were not in any way the ne plus ultra of the
standard repertoire that they are today. After all, they had been written
for Chromatic harp, and while a transcription by Renie did exist(Yes. What
we play is a transcription!) they had not yet worked their way into the
standard repertoire for pedal harp. Jamet had looked over the Danses prior
to this, but had neither studied nor performed them. So not daring to rebuff
the greatest living composer in France, he accepted, and learned the Danses
in 5 days! He had a rehearsal with Debussy, again in the composer’s
apartment, and because there was not enough time to assemble a string quartet,
the rehearsal and performance were done with Debussy accompanying him on
At the rehearsal, Debussy played the 7 bar introduction, and
then Jamet came in. Almost immediately Debussy stopped him. “It’s
too loud,” he said quietly. Jamet gulped. Debussy played the introduction
a second time, and Jamet, playing much more softly this time, came in again,
only to have Debussy stop him again. “It’s still too loud,”
the great one said. Jamet always finished the story by saying,”Let
me tell you. At that moment I knew what it meant to play softly!”
But that wasn’t the end of it. Jamet had arpeggiated
the opening chords, only to have Debussy stop him yet again. That wasn’t
what he was looking for. Jamet tried again, this time playing the chords
flat (unarpeggiated). That wasn’t it either. The two of them worked
on it some more until Debussy got what he was looking for.
In the afore mentioned video, Jamet, referring to that rehearsal,
says, “Debussy didn’t want the chords rolled. But he didn’t
want them flat either. It was something in between, but something closer
to flat than rolled.” In the memorial Bulletin, he is quoted as saying,”
Debussy wanted a certain emphasis of the melodic phrase by the left hand,
and felt that the right hand-very rapidly arpeggiated-should be a reflection
and sonorous prolongation of the left hand. “
When I went to Paris to study with Jamet after finishing my
undergraduate degree, I told him I would play whatever he wanted me to,
and for the next year, using etudes, exercises, and pieces, we focused mainly
on technique. Then one day, he said, “I think it’s time for
you to work on the Danses.” I was thrilled. I remember him telling
me that, while there were parts of the Danses that were difficult technically,
the first page was the most difficult to interpret, and that each time I
played it, I would have to work on it to create just the right texture.
He was right.
You might think that, simply knowing what the final result
should be, one could just do it that way. But it’s trickier than that.
The impulse to roll the chords is just too strong. So I have found that
using a four step process to practice this first page helps overcome the
urge to roll each chord, and to establish a texture for this passage consistent
with what Debussy envisioned. Each time I have worked on the Danses, I have
used the same process to practice the first page. I honestly can’t
remember whether I invented this process, or if it was one Jamet suggested
to me. All I know is, it works, and he liked the results.
It is important to mention here that simply being able to
hit all of the notes in the Danses in tempo does not necessarily mean you
are ready to play this piece. This is advanced repertoire, and there are
three points of technique that you must have mastered in order to be able
to interpret any music at this level. The first is the ability to place
a chord or individual note at the moment it is played, and not a microsecond
earlier. The second is the ability to place in sequence. This means placing
only one note at a time beyond the one you are actually playing, rather
than placing blocks of 3 or 4 notes at a time. The third is the ability
to play at least two dynamic levels in one hand simultaneously, in either
the left or right hand. You should also be able to play multiple dynamic
levels simultaneously when both hands are playing. If you have not mastered
these techniques, go back to easier repertoire and work these things out
before working seriously on the Danses.
Whether you have already learned the Danses, or you are
studying them for the first time, start by playing all the chords from
bar 8 to the end of the page completely flat, with no arpeggiation. What’s
important here is to be able to grab each chord easily, with no adjustment
or correction, and to grab the strings at the moment they are played,
and not a hair before. Make sure all the notes of each chord sound equally.
Do this many times until it feels completely fluid and comfortable.
Place all of the notes of each chord, but play only the
lowest note of the left hand and the highest note of the right hand(i.e.
the melody two octaves apart). Play these two notes together. Bring out
the lower note slightly, and concentrate on shaping the phrases. Do this
many times. Again, place, but don’t play, all of the middle notes.
Play as you did in step two, with one change. Instead of
playing the two outer notes together, play the top note slightly after,
but as close as possible to the bottom note. This applies only to the
chords of course, and not the octaves. The lower note should be played
on the beat. This step is critically important to the final result, so
do this many times, until it feels and sounds natural and very comfortable.
Play all of the notes of each chord, but keep the same rhythmic
distance between the lowest and the highest notes as you had in step three,
packing all of the middle notes into the almost nonexistent space between
those two outer notes. Start each chord on the beat, and bring out the
lowest note slightly, which is the primary melody note. The effect will
be that of a slight shimmer to each chord, without the feeling that it
is arpeggiated. This is the effect that Debussy wanted. Of course, some
of the chords can, and should be rolled longer: primarily the half note
chords that end each phrase.
Measures 17, 18, and 19 present a different problem. They
are not, as they are so often heard, an alteration between chords and octaves.
Look carefully at how Debussy notated these measures. He wrote out the melody
in quarter note octaves, and then wrote two note, half note chords on every
other beat. The octave/melody has to be played unarpegiated, and at a slightly
higher dynamic level, then the half note chords. The chords are there to
support, but not interfere with, the melody, and therefore must be played
at a lower dynamic level. The same thing happens on the last two measures
on the page.
Note- A Tambourin is a folk instrument played in several European
countries, including rural France. It consists of a simple recorder or flute,
played with one hand, and a drum strapped to the player, so that one person
can play both the recorder and the drum simultaneously.