How to Play and Teach Debussy

by Maurice Dumesnil

Endorsed by Madame Claude Debussy

"It is so rare to hear and interpretation so scrupulously exact and comprehensive"

Published by Schroeder and Gunther, Inc. NewYork 1932

Concerning Pedaling

Concerning the Piano


Approaching Debussy


The notation of fingerings in the examples taken from Debussy's music is suggested merely for reference. Debussy said:

"To impose a fingering cannot logically adapt itself to the different formations of the hand. The absense of fingerings is an excellent exercise, it suppresses the spirit of contradiction which prompts us to prefer not to use the author's fingering, and verifies these everlasting words: 'One is never better served than by one's self'."

Everywhere among teachers and students there is manifested a desire for a better comprehension of the music of undoubtedly the greatest contributor to the modern pianistic repertoire--Claude Debussy.

Without delving into the realm of musical history, I want to emphasize the capital importance of a master who, at the beginning of this century, brought about a revolution in the art of writing for the piano, comparable only in its consequences, to that which Chopin had precipitated seventy years before.

Debussy is one great example of a "national" composer who has become truly "international". In the later years of his life, he called himself " Claude Debussy, musicien francais," two words which describe, more accurately than long descriptions could do, the value which he attached to his nationality. A "French musician" indeed, was Debussy. He brought to us the luminous landscapes of the Ile de France, smiling spring on the rolling hills, mysterious shadows of venerable trees, fountains in the gardens under a starry sky.

Why is it that many pianists and students seem to have such difficulty in understanding the proper "atmospheric" rendering, so necessary for an accurate interpretation of Debussy's works! If I analyze the many examples I have seen, and cases I have had to deal with, I believe this question is easy to answer. In the first place, the student ought to acquire the proper technical and tonal equipment. Just as athletes must carry on their daily training, so the student must continue the "old-school" way of practicing, the cut-and-dry rolling of scales, the slow exercising of hammer-like fingers. But in addition, another more elusive, delicate and poetic way of treating the keyboard must also be evolved, without which the understanding and execution of Debussy would never become an open book.

Taking for granted that the student has acquired, or is acquiring the accepted fundamentals of technique, he can also develop himself along more intellectual, colorful, unrestrained lines. Once thoroughly mastered, the old standards of fingering, position of hands, arms, etc., can be modified, as then it will be done with a back-ground of knowledge and for a certain definite purpose. Debussy himself showed us the way in composition, when, studying at the Paris Conservatory under Ernest Guiraud, and already expert in harmonic intricacies, he used to tease his master by using such successions of chords as the following:

stating that he "liked it very, very much," and that. "his ear was his guide, and it's pleasure his rule."

The same must be observed concerning the interpretation of his music. Too many students do not listen enough to themselves. They go along the text, unaware of the treasures of coloring, the wealth of light and shade, the shimmering resonance which could spring out of the sounding board at their command, if only their imagination, coupled with an adequate equipment, took the upper hand over mere finger action.

However I believe that by setting forth a few principles, both for passage work and chords, and for the development of polyphonic touch and lateral action of fingers (and consequently smoother, more polished playing), much can be accomplished in that direction within a short time.

As a first and all-important principle, I want to point out the absolute necessity of studying the "pianissimo."

Everybody can play loud. There is no difficulty in doing that. But do you realize how much more difficult it is to play very softly? Have you ever made a special practice of it, and remained at the keyboard, trying to play the same chord softer and softer, at the same time listening to its quality of tone?

If you wish to become a fine interpreter of Debussy, this is the first step I would suggest.

Sit at your piano normally, hold down the two pedals, and start playing the chord of C major:

Start "piano." Listen most carefully and be sure that the three notes sound together, not one after another. Also, watch that the three have exactly the same volume of tone, so that none is heard more than the others.

Play more and more pianissimo. When you think you have reached the limit, try again, and play still more pianissimo. You will find that your improvement will be very quick and that each week, or perhaps each day, will mark a step forward in your mastery of a lovely, elusive, mellow tone.

Then, give this tone a series of delicate shadings, increases lightly, diminish, increase again, play the chords slower in order to listen to the vibration produced, to the "wave" of this vibration:

In performing the chords, keep your finger tips always in contact with the surface of the keys, even between each chord.

In order that the various notes should sound together, too much relaxation is not advisable. The fingers must have a certain firmness of rubber, with no stiffness whatsoever.

The little cushions at the finger tips should be extremely sensitive, and through their "feel," you should almost be able to foretell the quality of the tone which is going to come out.

This was one of Debussy's chief instructions:

"Play with more sensitiveness in the finger tips. Play chords as if the keys were being attracted to your finger tips, and rose to your hand as to a magnet"

Gradually, you can practice on other positions:

You will notice, if you press a key down gently and slowly, that just before it reaches the bottom there is a slight resistance, which releases under the pressure of your finger. This part of the action is called in French, the "double escape." You can use this to great advantage in "pianissimo" work, by getting your tone from this lower part of the stroke. More than ever, keep your fingers in contact with the keys, and do not allow these to come back all the way up,--only about half way, keeping the two pedals on all the time.

For the next step, we will proceed to practice the polyphonic production of all the chords previously used; that is, to bring out each single note in turn.

Modern music in general, and Debussy's in particular, takes its full significance when expressed through the carefully planned superposition of tonal values.

Start with the C major chord:

(Practice in the same way on all possible chords of 3, 4 and 5 notes, in various keys and position.)

Later on, work on a longer succession of the same chord, repeating it, let us say, sixteen times, giving the crescendo on the single note a wider range, and combining the use of both pedals as explained in the following example:

(The passing from the "pianissimo" to the "forte" must be very gradual: may I compare it to the steps of a stairway, or the ascent of a slow elevator. The "diminuendo," or descent, should be treated in the same manner.)

I have often been asked by students, how this bringing out of a single note can most satisfactorily be done. The finger, when attacking it, must be held a little firmer than the others. These must remain concentrated on the "pianissimo" tone as explained in the part dealing with the C major chord. this is a work which requires patience, and careful listening. One must try again and again, until an improvement is audible, and so on until complete results are reached.

Once more I want to emphasize the most important point of having all notes of the chords sound together, and never one after another, as if "arpeggioed."

Also when practicing with one prominent note, keep constantly in mind the necessity of playing the other "accompanying" notes on exactly the same tonal level.

All this requires a great deal of minute work and close attention, but in the end the results will be most gratifying.

Another most important point in tone coloring, has to deal with the playing of octaves. Generally speaking, it will be of great advantage to give distinct coloring to the two notes:

(It will be a matter of taste for the interpreter, to discover which note has to be given prominence.)

When the two hands are playing octaves together, this coloring can be more diversified:

(To be practiced on both white and black keys; in the latter case, use also the 4th finger instead of the 5th.)


Debussy seemed almost as reluctant to write down any indications in this direction, as he was about the fingerings. He limited himself to a few mentions of "les deux pedales" (the two pedals), and his indications of the damper pedal alone, are exceptionally scarce. Most of his compositions have none at all. And, unfortunately for the student, this applies to many pieces where they would be most necessary for those not thoroughly familiarized with his style. However, it is easy to set a few rules which will be a sure guide:

All runs, arpeggios and passages must always be treated from the "sonorous," the "harmonic," and the "vibrating" standpoint; never as a display of finger velocity. Therefore the damper pedal must be used very much when playing them. They must never be performed in a "neat and crisp" fashion, but literally drowned into what might be called a "wave of tone."

Debussy was so particular about this mellow, liquid tone production, that when, on rare occasions, he played in public, he requested that the top of the concert grand remain closed.

There is a subtle way of using the damper pedal as a "tone modifier" instead of using it merely to sustain the tone, or to suppress it entirely.

After striking a chord "fortissimo," with the damper pedal on, modify the tone twice, by a very quick action of the ankle, (just a slight shaking), lifting the foot only one fifth of an inch or so:

When doing this, the dampers will be allowed to come and touch the vibrating strings very quickly and lightly. For this reason, the contact will not be sufficient to eliminate the vibration entirely. It will only suppress part of it. Once thoroughly mastered, this way of pedaling will enable the interpreter to model his tone in the same way as a sculptor models his clay. It will prove to be an invaluable asset for the infinitesimal delicacy of coloring, so characteristic of Debussy's music.

In order to achieve certain pianissimo effects (on single notes principally), it is better to replace the direct attack at a right angle (as in Ex. 14). by an oblique, slanting, indirect attack, which will bring the finger in contact with the key progressively:

Moreover, in the "direct" attack, the tone is produced by the extreme tip of the finger, whereas in the "indirect" attack, the finger can be stretched out so that this position itself cooperates in softening the tone, since the progressive attack is done by the elastic little cushion of flesh, which is under the finger tip.

It is excellent practice to work on single notes and octaves, starting the attack with the hand held high, "inside the keyboard" and almost touching the lid, then bringing it down along a line as shown above in No. I5, passing over the keys as though caressing them:

Very lovely tonal effects will come from the above practice, which must be one of entire flexibility, relaxation and sensitiveness.

When studying tone production, students should note the special quality produced by a loud attack of the fingers, still with the soft pedal on. A melody might sound thin, superficial, if its softness is obtained only through lighter weight of finger action.

On the other hand, if one plays with deep pressure and "legato," still guarding the soft pedal, the tone will preserve a round, full, rich singing quality, but of a lesser volume, due to the fact that only two strings vibrate instead of three.

The fact that Debussy, in the "Serenade of the Doll" (Children's Corner) made a special note that the soft pedal be kept even in the "forte" passages, shows he knew the possibilities of this tonal effect, and it was satisfactory to him.


A factor of primary importance, for the execution and study of Debussy's music, is the piano used. No one can practice tone coloring efficiently on an instrument with a pounded-out action, worn-out hammers, and wobbly pedals. While it is not always possible for students to play on a new piano at all times, still it is possible, and absolutely necessary, to have one that is kept constantly in perfect condition, with the action smooth, the tone evenly voiced, and the pitch true.


No. 18. The right hand must remain very quiet, held rather low, and moving along the keyboard in a "crawling" manner. The fingers, stretched out and flattened, will move "laterally," as "legato" as possible, from one chord to the next.

Play the left hand "bell-like" notes dropping from the forearm, with the hand itself hanging from a perfectly relaxed wrist.

Hold the two pedals all the way through. Any excess of vibration on the first beat of the second bar, will be eliminated through slight, quick action of the damper pedal, as previously explained in Ex. No. 13.

"Tempo rubato" applies to the delivery of the two bars as a whole, not to any individual beats. One can start slowly, get slightly faster in the middle, "easing up" again towards the end.

Number 19 is an example of "crawling," "groping" legato chord work. Keep hands very low, the palm almost touching the keys.

No. 20. Play the right hand pianistic design (development of the chords of the beginning) with the same "lateral" finger action and low position of hand; "bell-like" tone again in the left hand. In the pages that follow, passage work must be treated in the same manner, bathed in pedal, with fingers always close to the keys, and never any dryness.

No. 21. Here, Debussy wanted the first measure all blurred in damper pedal (no soft pedal). The second measure with the soft pedal Tone, as an echo heard from afar.

No. 22. "Slowly. In harmonious sonority, as from a distance" The apreggioed notes rolled from the top one downward. Slight accent on the top note.

In the third bar, use "indirect," "caressing" touch, as explained in number 15.

Compositions of a similar character, in which the same methods can be used:

No. 23. "Sans riguer" means: "without stiffness in rhythm, not too metronomically."

Throughout this piece, be most careful to preserve the "line." Do not fall into any excesses of either tempo of shadings. A common mistake, found much too often, is the lack of accurate counting of the beats. All eighth notes tied over into the next beat, must be given their full value.

No 24. Another striking example of chord playing, with hand gliding laterally over the keys. "Sans lourdeur":without heaviness. Bring the upper voice slightly out of the hazy resonance, by pressing the fifth finger a little more firmly.

Compositions of a similar character:

No. 25. (With profound calm. Softly sonorous, as in a haze). Beware of attacking from too high. This is a case when one is able to produce the tone from the "double escape," or lower portion of the key stroke.

The action must be one of "pushing the keys down" from very close, using both the relaxed wrist and finger joints as soft springs, in order to secure as delicate a tone as possible.

No. 26. These chords must not be attacked from too high, as Debussy said: "sonorous without hardness."

Use much weight, not only from the arms, but from the shoulders. Attacking from too high would produce a tone deficient in quality, harsh and brittle.

An interesting pedal effect can be achieved by changing it just a little too late, after each chord. This will convey the poetic suggestion of a great organ playing in a cathedral, when the chords travel through the nave and the aisles, and get slightly blurred.

No. 27. The left hand "floating and muffled." Let the fingers "linger" on the keys. The attack must come more from a slight swaying of the wrist and hand, than from finger articulation.

Bring out, just a little, the top note of the right hand chords, though remaining always within a "muffled" quality of tone. (An echo of the phrase heard before in the "fortissimo").

Compositions of a similar character:

Nos. 28 & 29. The characteristic examples of the "indirect," "caressing" attack as explained in number 15.

No. 30. Here one can obtain an interesting effect of coloring by bringing out the two thumbs, the left thumb predominating slightly over the right thumb. (Ex. number 10).

The dotted octaves, under the "legato" sign, must be played "mellow," with soft "dropping" effect from the wrist.

No. 31. Take great care to use distinct ways of attack in the right hand. 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.

No. 32. Here, a quick shifting from firm legato singing tone (in the middle inside voices), to an "indirect, caressing" attack on the dotted notes is necessary. At first, it must be practiced very slowly.

Try and give different coloring to the three singing voices, (octaves in the right hand and single notes in the left), by giving prominence: first, to the top notes of the octave, right hand; second to the bass; third, the lower note of the octave right hand (subdued).

No. 33 & 34. In these, and other compositions where "light virtuosity" play a great part, be most careful never to become mechanical. Although of a rapid, running character, too much evident articulation would produce dryness. Here again, a close attack is necessary, with extremely quick and light motion of the finger tips.

The use of the two pedals will help produce the adequate sonority, which must be "soft and shimmering".

Other compositions of a similar character:

In pieces of a rhythmic, humoristic character, such as:

one must be most careful not too exaggerate, not to over-emphasize a sense of humor which must always remain truly "Gallic", discrete and refined.

Likewise, make it a point to respect a general unity of the rhythmic line. This will avoid a "chopped up", "jerky" interpretation.

As in all of Debussy's compositions, keep the "fortissimo" climaxes moderate.


While the examples contained in this book have been selected from the "greater Debussy", with the object of affording as many profitable hints of practice as possible, I think it is worthwhile to outline a reduced list of ten compositions, that will simplify the approach of the student to the style of Debussy:

These are probably Debussy's most popular piano compositions. At the same time, they cannot be counted among the most difficult ones he has written, but through them the student will gradually acquire and accurate conception of the special techniques and tonal equipment, so vitally necessary for a faithful rendering of all other works by the master.

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