Pollini and Debussy

In the Christmas holiday I visited Paris, and some of its wonderful museums, including the Musée d’Orsay, a museum in a former train station, with an amazing collection impressionist art (late 19th, beginning 20th century). The impressionist paintings, like the water lillies by Monet, made me think of Debussy (1862-1918). Like the paintings from that era, Debussy’s music is often called ‘impressionist’ (although Debussy himself disliked that term). In a current exhibition in the Hermitage in Amsterdam about the same period, Debussy’s music is played as background music.

But, there is another reason for me to discuss Debussy. Last Sunday I was somewhat lucky in getting one of the last tickets for Pollini’s recital in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Pollini is more than 70 years old, and is considered one of the best pianists of his generation. He is well-known for his Chopin recordings. And indeed, the program last Sunday featured Chopin (Ballades 2 and 3, Sonata in b minor, Prelude in cis) and Debussy (Preludes book I). But, let’s keep Chopin (especially the Sonata in b minor) for future discussions – Chopin has already made his way through the blog. It is a good time to introduce Debussy.

Debussy was one of the composers who would break with the deep, intense expressions that had been developed in the classical romantic era until the end of the 19th century (think of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, as discussed in previous posts). In his music he tries to convey an ‘image’ (one of his works is even called Images), create an atmosphere. It is as if he is painting with notes as colors, finding the right timbre. Debussy was searching for the ‘hammerless’ piano, a piano which was played such that the individual sounds would not be really discernible, but dissolve in the atmosphere that is created. The harmony he uses is different from what had been used before (for example whole tone scale), and he departs from the classical structure of musical pieces. It makes him one of the most important composers of the 20th century.

Pollini played the first 12 preludes of Debussy. As I mentioned when discussing one of the Preludes of Rachmaninoff, such preludes are ‘prefaces’, relatively short pieces. It was custom, like Chopin, to write a set of 24 preludes (all major and minor keys are covered), and Debussy adhered to this by writing 2 books of 12 preludes each. For the sheet music go here.  Each of the preludes has a name, or rather, a description, such as ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’. But as you can see in the sheet music, Debussy deliberately added these descriptions to the end of each piece, because he wanted the listener to have his own interpretation before being influenced by the intention of the composer.

Today I want to pick out one of Debussy’s preludes that I heard last Sunday: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’  (no. 8). It is one of his most famous ones and is a good example of his style. Listen, and dissolve in the world of colors of Debussy.

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