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Debussy at the piano

Accounts describing Debussy as a pianist

Debussy working on Pelléas et Melisande

Misia Sert:

Pierre Louÿs, who lived in the rue Gluck, brought several friends home one day to hear this masterpiece – Pelléas – played on an upright piano by Debussy himself, who also sang all the parts. I was the only woman. A servant dressed in a white shirt served us cocktails. I had never drunk in my life. On this occasion they concocted a series of liqueurs – yellow, green, red, - which stayed in layers in the glass. I partook of several, stretched out on a chaise longue, transfixed by a larger-than-life Japanese doll, which was facing me. I hardly listened to the words of Maeterlinck. Distracted, only the playing of Debussy touched my heart, and intoxicated by the colors of the cocktails Mélisande became the Japanese doll: I invented a story that had no connection with the miracles that were taking place in the salon that evening. [Lesure (1977) p. 11]

The composer Raymond Bonheur:

It is well known what an incomparable player he was of his own works, providing not only the illusion of an orchestra, but an extraordinary impression of life and movement. His hollow voice was rich in emphasis and expression, and those who have not heard him in the terrible scene with the hair in the fourth act of Pelléas can have no suspicion of its real tragic power. [Nichols p. 11]

The poet Leon-Paul Fargue:

Debussy would sit himself down without speaking at the piano of the little study-cum-library and start to improvise. [...] He would start by brushing the keys, prodding the odd one here and there, making a pass over them and then he would sink into velvet, sometimes accompanying himself, his head down, in an attractive nasal voice, like a sung whisper. [Nichols p. 49]

The arist Jacques-Emile Blanche:

Debussy at the piano! One had to have seen it to appreciate its magic. No words could describe the mysterious enchantment of his playing, or of his way of humming while he recited his settings of poetry. During those late afternoons in Pierre Louÿs' bachelor flat, Claude would be seated at a harmonium of no great distinction, playing a reduction of newly composed pages from the orchestral score of Pelléas. [Nichols p. 109]

André Messager, conductor of Pelléas et Melisande :

Debussy played his score at the piano, and sang all the roles in that deep, sepulchral voice of his which often necessitated his transposing the parts an octave lower, but with an expression that grew more and more irresistible. The impression produced by his music that day was, I think, a unique experience. At first, there was an atmosphere of mistrust and antagonism; then gradually the attention of the hearers was caught and held; little by little emotion overcame them; and the last notes of Mélisande's deathscene fell amidst silence and tears. At the end, they were all quite carried away, and eager to set to work as soon as possible. [Vallas p. 109]