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13 minutes reading time (2660 words)

First Debussy piano pieces with pedagogical advice

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Claude Debussy was a person of great restraint and even considered elusive by some. He was not concerned with the technical issues of a pianist, and yet was highly attentive to the quality of a pianissimo and its relationship to softer or louder levels of sound. We know his playing generally did not reach a forceful fortissimo. He cared less about how a sound was produced than that the tone was just the sound he wanted. We know he often played soft chords with the hand outstretched and with flat fingers.

Various selections from his piano output are among the most frequently played in the entire piano repertoire, and pianists at all levels of advancement are drawn to study his music. The sounds, colors, and the exoticism in the music lure us inward. Due to the nature of our instrument, pianists have the option to create an entire orchestral sound at the keyboard from the multi-layered textures in his writing. Debussy was a master at infusing this requirement into his music. Pianists playing Debussy can evoke memories of distant cultures, of dances, of improvisation on a flute, of the sound of a street scene, and much more in their playing. Debussy's music requires a pianist to use the fingers in different ways to create an assortment of sounds. This, in part, is why many pianists flock to this music.

The focus in this article is to offer a perspective on first Debussy works for pianists, accompanied by pedagogical advice for the performer. It is true that no "easy" Debussy is composed for piano, and yet several works emerge as among the most accessible. This article will provide pedagogical suggestions on the Album Leaf (1915), Le petit nègre (Cakewalk) (1909), The Little Shepherd (1906-1908), and Golliwog's Cakewalk (1906-1908). Scores for all of them are readily available in separate editions or in anthologies issued by many publishers. 


Album Leaf (Page d'album), L. 133 (1915)

The Album Leaf (Page d'album) is probably Debussy's most accessible piano piece, technically and musically, and was composed for a fundraising auction for a war relief organization in 1915. It also is his shortest piano selection, composed of only thirty-eight measures. Basic technical requirements include the playing of jump bass, syncopated pedaling, and use of rubato. Compositionally, Debussy's free use of falling thirds emerges as a unifying device within this short work.

What to expect?

Form: Album Leaf is a waltz in a slow to moderate tempo and in the form A A' Codetta. In the codetta the waltz main theme drifts away, slowing and softening to a faint pianississimo. To help the performer mentally hold the piece together in practice and performance, his ear can be directed to hearing, in succession, the beginnings of the three sections in this piece.

The main melody makes use of melodic thirds and is accompanied by a waltz bass. In the opening two measures, Debussy surprises the listener as he first sets the bass in two beat groupings, not three. Quickly, he then moves to a clear 3/4 in measure 3 (Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: Album Leaf, L. 133, by Claude Debussy, mm. 1-4.


Occurrences of seventh chords appear throughout Debussy's compositions and also are prevalent here. Expect to hear melodic passages based on seventh chords and blocked seventh chords in the left hand. Once students spot the broken chord patterns in the melodic passages, reading and playing the score becomes more obtainable.

Tempo: Debussy's tempo indications are frequent and detailed—thirteen alone are indicated in this thirty-eight-measure piece! Yet, their integration should feel natural and generally not pose undue difficulties for a performer (Excerpt 2). 

Excerpt 2: Album Leaf, L. 133, by Claude Debussy, mm. 23-28.

What matters especially?

If the performer can structurally hear and memorize this as a work of three similar sections, with the third evolving into a short ending codetta that quickly dies away, the unity of the piece becomes easier to grasp aurally.

Inscribing the fingering in the score for the beginning of each section can help reinforce consistency. If a performer can begin the first measure of each section, skipping among them with correct fingering, he will reap the benefits in memory security and increased ease of learning.

We know that Debussy rarely indicated pedaling in his works since he felt that it should be closely tied to the resonance of the piano and the acoustics of the room. Pedaling considerations here are primarily tied to the waltz bass and to sustaining the bass throughout the measure.

The most technically difficult section appears near the end of the piece when the right hand remains in a stationary position with two notes sustained and the bottom part of the hand plays a three-pitch figure in quarters and eighths simultaneously. This calls for adept finger independence and careful voicing. See Excerpt 2 from Album Leaf above for a segment of this passage 


Le petit nègre (Cakewalk), L. 114 (1909)

Two of the four pieces in this article are cakewalks, Le petit nègre (Cakewalk) and Golliwog's Cakewalk, and are among Debussy's most upbeat and distinctly rhythmic works. Both are ragtime-influenced pieces—composed in the early 1900s slightly after Irving Berlin composed Alexander's Ragtime Band. Ragtime was decidedly popular in the United States between 1895 and 1920 and many composers including Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and Ives experimented with ragtime. Debussy, in addition, was enamored with dance hall music and a combination of the cakewalk, jazz, ragtime, and dance hall music can be seen in both of the pieces.

According to Paul Roberts, thecakewalk "appears to have originated as a slow, high-kicking dance…on the American cotton plantations—imitating and parodying the polite elegance of white dancers."1 It is believed that the title refers to the prize cake that the dancers competed for, and it is thought that the cakewalk was danced to slow ragtime. Ragtime was a form of piano music, popular around 1900 in the United States, highly syncopated, quite rhythmic, and in 2/4 usually. At times, it feels march-like in nature.

Le petit nègre (Cakewalk) is undoubtedly one of the most accessible of his piano compositions. In this piece the performer is presented with two slightly contrasting sections that alternate several times. Debussy grabs the performer's attention with a syncopated opening before moving to a more lyrical second theme in measure 21. Expect witty and good-natured writing throughout, with roots in American jazz. Le petit nègre is highly repetitive, and in terms of difficulty can be considered as around Level 8 (Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: Le petit Nègre (Cakewalk) by Claude Debussy, mm. 1-4.


What to expect?

Form and Style. The form is ABABA. With only two sections to learn, a performer who masters both the jaunty sixteen-measure A section and the lyrical eighteen-measure B section has the majority of the work done. Le petit nègre is a jazzy piece and features highly rhythmic writing and a lively tempo. Note Debussy's use of the pentatonic scale in the ascending passage, both in measures 13-16, and also in the melody of the B theme (Excerpt 4). 

Excerpt 4: Le petit Nègre (Cakewalk) by Claude Debussy, mm. 13-16.


Pedaling. A few accent pedals are appropriate. Otherwise, strive for an avoidance of pedal in the A sections. Syncopated pedaling requirements are straightforward in the B sections.

Fingering. Securing the fingering, especially at the beginnings of the two sections, is important. The chromatic minor thirds in measures 3-7 require consistent fingering during each occurrence. Several ways for pianists to practice this passage include with left hand alone in rhythms, by playing four eighths and then pausing followed by the next four and so on, and by using simple repetition with five times perfect.

Fingering at the beginning of the B section in measures 21-24 should be secured at the outset. The off-beat chords in measure 28 can be redistributed easily to play all in the right hand.

What matters especially?

A performer's over-thinking the fingering for the chromatic double thirds can be treacherous. Knowing (memorizing and being able to name) exactly which fingers are played on the first third of the passage and on the B/D third when the left hand starts its descent will be an effective aid to memorizing here (Excerpt 5). 

Excerpt 5: Le petit Nègre (Cakewalk), by Claude Debussy, mm. 3-5.


The Children's Corner

The final two pieces discussed here come from Debussy's collection Children's Corner, a suite of six pieces composed between 1906 and 1908. The set was dedicated to his young daughter, Chouchou. The titles are in English, and probably Debussy was referring to his daughter's governess who was English. It is conjectured that perhaps he was providing a bit of humor. Robert Schmitz surmises that Debussy wanted to write pieces that would inspire his daughter to play with her toys in an imaginative way and perhaps also wanted the music to bring joy to the daughter's play.2 We can consider this music to be in the same vein as Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15—various scenes from childhood as seen through adults' eyes. Debussy even recorded the Children's Corner on piano roll, and that roll is located in the Simonton collection at the University of Southern California. In addition, many great artists since the time of Debussy, including Cortot, Gieseking, Michelangeli, and others, have recorded it, reflecting its timeless nature. The two pieces discussed here are the most accessible of the set. On the other end of the spectrum is Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, a work that requires a pianist with a highly reliable technique and sense of finesse.  

The Little Shepherd (1906-1908)

The performer of The Little Shepherd is called to evoke a scene of a shepherd playing a reed pipe or flute. One could imagine that he is playing high on top of one of the Alps of France, Switzerland, or Austria. In this mountain scene, the music alternates between improvisatory fragments and dance-like passages. The programmatic nature of the work is striking.

What to expect?

Dynamic control: Debussy marks this to be played piano or even softer throughout, other than in a half-measure climactic section in measure 24, played mezzo forte. It reflects Debussy's habit of writing layers of sounds and his penchant for exploring the softer ranges of the piano. Dynamic markings are many and detailed. Note that in the last four measures alone, Debussy asks for a pianissimo dynamic followed by a decrescendo three times. Performers can experiment with using firm fingertips for refined control in these very soft passages (Excerpt 6). 

Excerpt 6: “The Little Shepherd,” from Children’s Corner, by Claude Debussy, mm. 27-31.


Rhythm: Performers must be able to execute the dotted rhythms with complete accuracy, playing triplets only when they are marked.

Pedaling: Much of the piece can be played with finger legato. Pedal is used primarily on long sustained tones to promote further resonance. While limited use of the una corda pedal may be useful, it needs to be applied sparingly.

Fingering: While having clearly marked fingerings for beginnings of the various passages is necessary, the work overall is pianistic and avoids rapid skips on the piano.

What matters especially?

The performer should transport herself to the role of a flutist in a scene high in one of the European Alps, playing to any and all who will hear a piece that alternates improvised fragments with more lively and rhythmic dance-like sections.

Tonal control is a difficult aspect of this piece as the performer can never give up trying to execute the most difficult soft playing and nuances indicated. Use of the una corda should be reserved for only the very softest passages and used briefly for limited color changes.

The performer will want to establish a strong pulse in each section, and maintain it through the tied notes, grace notes, and dotted rhythm passages. She should count both aloud and internally when practicing.


Golliwog's Cakewalk (1906-1908)

This selection is syncopated and jazzy, filled with sudden starts and stops, and permeated with good humor and merriment. This hilarity perhaps was triggered by Debussy's interest in the European dance halls of the day as well as the increasing popularity of ragtime in the United States (Excerpt 7).

Excerpt 7: “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” from Children’s Corner, by Claude Debussy, mm. 10-13.


His daughter Chouchou was given a golliwog doll that probably inspired Debussy in writing this humorous piece. In the music, the puppet "Golliwog" can be seen dancing to the music, required to negotiate a series of jerky dance steps, exaggerated poses, falls, tumbles, and recoveries. Notably, beginning in measure 61 in the midst of the dancing, Debussy inserts a theme from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and marks it "slower, with great emotion." The Tristan theme is followed by what could be a musical imitation of people smothering giggles, the humor stemming perhaps from someone in that day interpreting it as a satirical nod to Wagner's grand romanticism in the opera (Excerpt 8). The jaunty dance resumes, and finally, at the conclusion, the doll picks himself up and departs hastily.


What to expect?

Form: The piece is in A (mm. 1-46) B (mm. 47-91) A' (mm. 92 to end) form. As in the pieces discussed earlier, the structure is predictable and many of the passages from the opening part repeat in the last A' section.

Texture: Various double-note passages are present as well as grace notes attached to chords. The range of the keyboard required is more extended than in the earlier three Debussy pieces.

Style: This work is a jazz-influenced dance. Often a melody is written for the right hand and rhythmic accompaniment figures appear in the left hand, with a notable exception being a vamp in measures 47-60. A redistribution of notes between hands, if desired, can occur in measure 10 and similar measures.

Pedaling: Most of the pedaling in this piece is uncomplicated. Consider using short accent pedals when needed, as in measures 2-4 of the opening, only to sustain long notes or reinforce loud chords. Pedaling generally should be sparse in the A and A' sections. With the introduction of the Tristan theme and the material that follows, using the damper pedal is necessary. Perhaps the most challenging passages with syncopated pedaling are in measures 71-75 and measures 81-86. Moderating the tempo slightly to allow for syncopated pedal changes can help.

In Debussy, one occasionally finds bass notes that should resonate their full value, and yet a figure with a different articulation is written above it. Usually, the sustained bass requires the pedal to prevail. This occurs several times such as in measures 63, 67, and 85-86 (Excerpt 9).

Voicing: Voicing of accompaniment beneath the melody within a single hand is important, especially since the texture overall is thicker than in previous pieces discussed here. 

Excerpt 9: “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” from Children’s Corner, by Claude Debussy, m. 63.


What matters especially?

Setting the tempi for the sections will require attention. In the picture to be painted through the performance, the dancers are strutting, kicking, and having a lively party, even as it turns into mocking the seriousness of Wagner's music in the B section. Differentiating between the various degrees of accents and observing those markings in the score help underscore the humor in this raucous piece. Note Debussy's detail in marking the articulations and slurring throughout the score.

The performer should be at a level of advancement to be able to substitute fingers and accomplish more advanced pedal techniques to perform Golliwog's Cakewalk successfully. 

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