Sound and colours
Sound in Debussy; what does it mean?
Pianists like to vary the sound by using different kinds of touch. Obviously one cannot alter the sound of one single tone on the piano, beyond changing the loudness of it, although one can create different types of articulation. One can understand sound in piano playing as the relationship between several tones. A chord can be given different sound by varying the loudness of different notes in the chord. A perception of sound can also result from how the loudness between each note in a phrase is, in that smooth transitions between the tones creates a soft sound. In addition one can understand sound simply as dynamics: a subdued sound is soft.
Dumesnil's book includes exercises in bringing out different notes of the same chord, and in that way experiment with the sound. [Dumesnil p.10] Octaves, he says, can also be coloured by bringing out different notes.
A refined and nuanced sound is very important in Debussy's music. E. Robert Schmitz said that "The nuance, to Debussy, was everything." [Nichols p. 169] Dumesnil mentions several examples where Debussy said something about sound i the performance of piano pieces. In Hommage à Rameau Debussy wanted a nuances octave sound:
Debussy: In those first bars I would like the right hand slightly more prominent than the left hand. Octaves sound flat when played with the same tone volume in both hands. [Nichols p. 159]
Dumesnil further describes how Debussy wanted considerable freedom and a light sound in the accompaniment of Poissons d'or:
Those initial accompaniment figures - they had to be lighter, almost immaterial, so one could hear 'two clarinets' up above. [Nichols p. 160]
To imagine the music orchestrated is a well known way of thinking for pianists to achieve a certain sound, and a method Debussy made use of.
Debussy often thought in terms of orchestration. Concerning the second section of 'Clair de lune', he said, 'The left-hand arpeggios should be fluid, mellow, drowned in pedal, as if played by a harp on a background of strings.' But he did not tolerate any confusion and insisted on the purity of each harmonic pattern. [Nichols p. 160]
Dumesnil emphazise that Debussy didn't always want just a light sound:
It would be a mistake to believe that Debussy always spoke in terms of softness, elusive approach, two-pedal effects, etc. In the suite 'Pour le piano', for instance, it was another story. Here he demanded a totally different conception, one of robust precision. The same holds true for 'L'isle joyeuse', 'Masques' and the study 'Pour les octaves,' to mention only a few. [Nichols p. 161]
"Sound" in piano playing can often not be considered separate, but will be connected with touch, pedalling, and maybe also tempo. Debussy was known for his creative pedalling and original touch, something which created a very special sound. Dumesnil tells us what Debussy said about sound in Reflets dans l'eau, and that pedalling and touch was very important means to achieve this:
The remarks dealing with 'Reflets dans l'eau' were illuminating. From the first, the chord background ought to be subdued; played with laterally moving fingers, drowned in pedal, once more. 'I do not hear the bells,' Debussy commented. [Nichols p. 160]
Debussy thus thought that it would help to imagine the sound of bells. Dumesnil points out that it was important for Debussy that the pianist should listen, in order to achieve the right sound:
'Faites confidence à votre oreille', a remark that is not surprising from a musician whose aim had always been the pleasure of the ear as against rigid rules and pedagogic pedantry. [Nichols p. 162]
Melody and accompaniment
Pianists are used to differentiate between melody and accompaniment, and bring forth the melody by giving it another sound. Louis Laloy warns against doing this in music of Debussy:
Pianists must give up the presumption of 'bringing out the tune'; when thoroughly understood, the melody will take on by itself the slight prominence which is needed; to insist would be to fall into Romantic affection. [Priest p. 108]
Even though there are melody and accompaniment, or foreground and background, in the music of Debussy, one should not emphasize the melody too strongly. Laloy says something similar in an advice to conductors:
It is unnecessary to seek to modify the perspective, as one so willingly does for the Classics; brandishers of the baton draw out at will such and such timbre from the orchestral mass into the foreground. [...] Each detail is in its place and must remain there; each detail has been calculated for the total effect, and the effect would be compromised by the slightest alteration of the balance. [Priest p. 107]
This is in accordance with what I arrived at in the chapter "Musical expression". In Debussy one shouldn't have strong contrasts, but rather small nuances. A small and refined contrast between foreground and background creates a soft and natural sound. Marguerite Long confirms that Debussy didn't like pianists who brought forth the melody too much, because it was done at the expense of other elements in the music:
'The fifth finger of virtuosi, what a pest it is!' What he meant by that is that too often one hammers the melody without attaching sufficient importance to the whole harmony; harmony that, according to him, should never be sacrificed to the melodic idea. [Long p. 13]
Dumesnil, where he writes on the performance of the beginning of Danseuses de Delphes, emphasizes that the differentiation between the melody and accompaniment should be achieved by creating a different tone quality. In this piece the melody is in the middle register with chords above it, making it hard for the listener to distinguish.
The middle voice, 'legato', must be played with a certain firmness, while the chords, as well as the octaves of the bass, should be performed in a soft relaxed, and floating manner. However, this effect must be achieved only through difference of attack and tone quality, not by playing the middle voice louder. [Dumesnil p. 21]
The idea that the melody can be given a different tone quality, without playing it louder, is controversial, but it at least shows that the melody even here shouldn't be hammered out. To focus on touch and sound, and not just dynamics, must have been an important approach for Debussy.
A soft, subdued sound?
Karl Lahm mentions that Debussy had an interesting conception of colour and overtones:
In the salon of a musically inclined countess, he showed at the piano that colour depends on the correct handling of the overtones, which must not be obtrusive. [Nichols p. 123]
What this actually means, is not easy to understand. Maybe it just means that Debussy sought a soft, subdued sound, since a lot of overtones means a sharper sound. Almost all descriptions of Debussy as a pianist (see Debussy at the piano) stress his soft sound. Debussy is known to have said that pianists should imagine a piano without hammers, to achieve this sound. Léon Vallas, writes this in his book on Debussy:
He was an original virtuoso, remarkable for the delicacy and mellowness of his touch. He made one forget that the piano has hammers - an effect which he used to request his interpreters to aim at. [Vallas p. 108]
Marguerite Long also emphasizes this:
'One must forget that the piano has hammers,' was one of his most frequent sayings. [Long p. 13]
Dumesnil mentions the special sound one can get by using the left pedal, but still playing loudly: "The tone will preserve a round, full, rich singing quality, but of a lesser volume" [Dumesnil p. 14]. One could also say that this would create a big, but soft and mellow sound.
Louis Laloy points out that many runs and rapid figurations are not meant for virtuosic display, but as a background sound:
But pianists must no more draw attention to what they quite wrongly call runs, that is those rapid figurations whose function is to envelop the main tunes, to trace a harmony for them with lines, according to the very character of the piano, and to give vivacity to the background. It would be better to blur these patterns, even to let slip some wrong notes, as amateurs do, than to overcome the difficulties they present in a triumphant manner, and look for applause by preening like a gymnast. [Priest p. 108]
This passages should be played subdued so that they remain in the background, something which can be more of a challange that playing them in a virtuosic way. Laloy concludes his advice on playing Debussy by saying this on sound:
Finally, euphony is required throughout [...] It is advisable that the artist develop the habit of listening to himself [...] [and] that [he], in short, maintain softness in strength, and strength in softness. [Priest p. 109]