Debussy's pianists: what can we learn from the composer's favoured interpreters?

Charles Timbrell
Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Charles Timbrell surveys the early 20th-century pianists who are known to have worked closely with Debussy and performed the composer’s music in his presence

Credit: Tully Potter Collection

How did Debussy and the pianists who played for him perform his piano music? What did he listen for when he coached them? An array of early recordings, memoirs, letters and reviews enables us to answer these questions more completely than we can for most other composers.

A good place to start is with a consideration of Debussy’s own pianism. The English writer Louise Liebich, Debussy’s first biographer, stated that she had ‘never heard more beautiful piano playing’. Other descriptions confirm that Debussy’s playing was very different from the dry, highly articulated style of many French pianists of his time. His early teacher, Mme Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have studied with Chopin, advocated a tone-sensitive approach, and during his subsequent study at the Paris Conservatoire with the renowned Antoine Marmontel he performed such challenging works as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 111, Schumann’s G minor Second Sonata and Chopin’s Second Concerto.

Once established as a composer, Debussy played mainly his own music. He was highly praised by critics, one of them writing: ‘One can’t imagine the sweetness of his caressing playing, the sublimity of his singing touch.’ Another stated that his interpretation was ‘free of every mannerism and surprising [in] its simplicity’. The pianist and composer Alfredo Casella wrote that Debussy ‘gave the impression of playing directly on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism … Moreover, he used the pedals in a way all his own. He played, in a word, like no other living composer or pianist.’

These qualities can all be heard on the piano rolls Debussy made for the Welte-Mignon company around 1912, including ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, Children’s Corner and five of the Préludes. The four acoustic recordings that he made in 1904 with the soprano Mary Garden, although faint, are at least as precious, capturing him in ‘real time’ and with the above-mentioned characteristics.

Debussy’s famous admonition that ‘one must forget that the piano has hammers’ must have been heard by many of the pianists who played for him. His three most active champions were the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, the English-American Walter Rummel and the American George Copeland. Others included Marie Panthès (Russian); Alfredo Casella (Italian); Harold Bauer, Norah Drewett and Franz Liebich (all English); Theodor Szántó (Hungarian); Maurice Dumesnil, Jane Mortier, Édouard Risler, Elie Robert Schmitz and Ennemond Trillat (all French); Rudolf Ganz (Swiss); and Richard Buhlig, Felix Fox and Heinrich Gebhard (all American).

The earliest of these was Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943), who studied in Barcelona with Joan Pujol and then in Paris with Ravel’s teacher Charles de Bériot. Viñes had a large and varied repertoire but specialised in new French and Russian music. He was coached by Debussy several times in late 1901 and a few weeks later he played the very successful premiere of Pour le piano. For the next 10 years he was practically Debussy’s official pianist, premiering Estampes, L’isle joyeuse, Masques, both books of Images and five of the Préludes. He also performed the two-piano transcriptions of the Nocturnes and Ibéria with Debussy at the second piano. His playing was typically praised for its suppleness, brilliance and richness. During this period he was a frequent dinner guest at Debussy’s house, but by 1912 they became less close, Debussy complaining in letters to others about his dry and distorted performances. In 1930 Viñes recorded two of Debussy’s most famous pieces: ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ is played rather quickly yet with nice touches of rubato, while ‘Poissons d’or’ is a complete success, fast, light, elegant and with wonderful colouristic pedalling.

Maurice Dumesnil (1884-1974), who studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Isidor Philipp, enjoyed a successful career in France and the United States. He played the premiere of ‘Hommage à Rameau’ in Paris in 1905, heard Debussy perform often and was coached by him. His book How to Play and Teach Debussy (1932), endorsed by Debussy’s widow, includes exercises for maintaining control in quiet playing, for half-pedalling, bringing out different notes in chords and achieving a ‘caressing’ touch by sliding outstretched fingers. In later articles he quoted Debussy’s advice to ‘play chords as if the keys were being attracted to your fingertips and rose to your hand as to a magnet’. He also recalled Debussy’s advice to observe exact dynamics, to pedal according to one’s ears and to play without Romantic affectations.

Harold Bauer (1873-1951), who was mainly self-taught, played L’isle joyeuse, ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ and ‘La puerta del vino’ in London in 1906 and gave the premiere of Children’s Corner in Paris two years later. Although Debussy coached him in the latter work, no details are included in Bauer’s autobiography. According to one colleague, Bauer played it ‘with all his usual skill but in a rather Romantic style, indulging in uncalled-for contrasts and effects.’ We can hear this style in his two Debussy recordings. Rêverie includes altered dynamics, non-synchronised hands and some rewriting, while ‘Clair de lune’ includes arpeggiations of chords on the last two pages. Nonetheless, both pieces exhibit appropriate subtle pedalling and colourism. Bauer remained an active champion of Debussy’s music throughout his life.

Bauer’s student George Copeland (1882-1971), who also studied with Teresa Carreño, gave the earliest known performance of Debussy’s piano music in the United States, in Boston in early 1904. In 1909 he played the first of many all-Debussy recitals, and in 1911 he played 10 of Debussy’s pieces for the composer. According to Copeland, Debussy was very pleased. But at one point he asked Copeland why he interpreted certain passages in ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ as he did. When Copeland replied that he just ‘felt it that way’, Debussy said that in that case he should continue to do them his way. He praised Copeland’s pianissimo, saying that he ‘let air get in under the notes’. During the next 50 years Copeland included Debussy’s music in every programme he performed in the United States, Canada and Europe. On 21 November 1916 he played the world premieres of two of the Études – ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’ and ‘Pour les arpèges composés’. Copeland’s recordings of more than 20 of Debussy’s pieces confirm what a critic once wrote: ‘His assets include his touch of crystalline clearness; his exquisite sense of rhythm; his intimate variety of tone colours; and a musical nature that delights in bittersweet dissonances.’ His best recordings, including the Suite bergamasque, ‘Hommage à Rameau’, ‘La puerta del vino’ and his own transcription of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune reveal a fine improvisatory sense and a refined control of touch.

From around 1912, Debussy favoured the playing of Walter Rummel (1887-1953), who had recently moved to Paris after studying in Berlin with Leopold Godowsky. The two remained close friends until Debussy’s death in 1918. In 1913 Rummel played both books of Images in his Paris debut recital and the second book of Préludes in London. During the war, he and Debussy sometimes played on the same programmes and he was often invited to the composer’s home for dinner and to play for guests. Rummel’s repertoire included 29 Debussy pieces, of which he premiered 10, including four unspecified Études and the two-piano suite En blanc et noir. The latter work was played with his wife Thérèse Chaigneau-Rummel, who also played the Six Épigraphes antiques with him in its Paris premiere. Critics praised Rummel’s Debussy-playing for its ‘great delicacy and sympathy’ and its ‘lightness, ease, and remarkable understanding of the half-tints’. The 10 extant letters from Debussy to Rummel indicate that he regarded him highly both as a musician and as a friend. Unfortunately Rummel made no Debussy recordings, but in his memoirs he wrote: ‘To interpret Debussy in a rational manner and “according to the rules” is to do a great injustice to the spirit of his music.’

Elie Robert Schmitz (1889-1949) studied with Louis Diémer (the teacher of Alfred Cortot and Robert Casadesus) and launched a promising career before a hand injury during the war derailed him. He knew Debussy from 1908 to 1915, serving as accompanist for his coaching sessions with singers and receiving his occasional advice in playing his solo pieces. His book The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (1950) includes valuable comments on each work and rather detailed formal analyses and pianistic advice. Typically helpful is the suggestion to silently catch the opening note of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ with the sostenuto pedal, holding it down for the first six bars while playing normally with the sustaining pedal. Similar use of the sostenuto pedal is advised for other pieces, though Debussy’s pianos lacked that pedal. Schmitz had to rework his technique extensively after his hand injury, but there is little sense of strain or accommodation on his recording of the 24 Préludes. In general, the faster pieces fare better than the slower ones, which tend to be bland and not as slow as they could be, especially ‘Brouillards’, ‘Des pas sur la neige’ and ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’. In 1918 he settled in the United States, where he was active as a pianist, teacher, conductor and concert promoter. Debussy’s pieces were featured in all his known recitals.

Marcel Ciampi (1891-1980) also studied with Diémer, and around 1915 he was coached by Debussy in Pour le piano, Children’s Corner and many of the Préludes, eight of which he recorded around 1930. In ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ his playing is fast and clean, with subtle contrasts of texture and a sensuously free middle section. In ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ he displays a wide variety of touches and – unlike a number of pianists – his changes of tempo are similar to those on Debussy’s recording. Some of Ciampi’s recollections of his coaching with Debussy have been incorporated in the scholarly Oeuvres complètes edition published by Durand.

One of the last pianists to receive Debussy’s coaching was Marguerite Long (1874-1966). Her teachers included Antonin Marmontel, the son of Debussy’s teacher. Her playing was summed up well by an early reviewer: ‘One could not play with better fingers, with more clarity and good taste, with a more charming and natural simplicity.’ Although she resisted Debussy’s music at first, finding it enigmatic, by 1914 she was a convert, organising a concert in which she and Debussy both performed. They initiated a plan to work together on his piano works, but this was interrupted by the war and the death of her husband. In 1917, however, she was able to play a number of Debussy’s pieces for him: Estampes, Pour le piano, both books of Images and several of the Préludes and Études. Unfortunately, her book Au piano avec Claude Debussy, written more than 40 years after his death, is uneven and self-aggrandising. The pages on L’isle joyeuse and Pour le pianocontain insights but those on the Préludes are quite banal. Her only performance of Debussy’s music during his lifetime was a concert in 1917 at which she played three of the Études – ‘Pour les arpegès composés’, ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’ and ‘Pour les cinq doigts – d’après Monsieur Czerny’. She later recorded the Deux Arabesques, La plus que lente and ‘Jardins sous la pluie’. The first three are full of charm, but ‘Jardins’ is inappropriately fast and superficial-sounding.

Other pianists whom Debussy is known to have heard and might have coached include Alfredo Casella, Léon Delafosse, Yvonne Lefébure, Marcelle Meyer, Francis Planté, Edouard Risler, Blanche Selva, Theodor Szántó and Ennemond Trillat. After Debussy’s death a number of pianists performed privately for his widow Emma, who was a former trained singer. These included Alfred Cortot, Denyse Molié, Arthur Rubinstein and Marius-François Gaillard (who in 1920 became the first to play all of Debussy’s piano works in public). It is fitting that Emma should have the last word: ‘Many pianists should bear in mind that if they play Claude’s music and someone tells them how wonderful their technique is, then they are not playing Debussy.’

Charles Timbrell is the author of French Pianism: A Historical Perspective (Kahn & Averill, second edition, 1999)


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