How to Play and Teach Debussy

by Maurice Dumesnil

Endorsed by Madame Claude Debussy

"It is so rare to hear and interpretationso 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 fromDebussy's music is suggested merely for reference. Debussy said:

"To impose a fingering cannot logically adapt itselfto the different formations of the hand. The absense offingerings is an excellent exercise, it supresses the spirit ofcontradiction which prompts us to prefer not to use the author'sfingering, and verifies these everlasting words: 'One is neverbetter served than by one's self'."

Everywhere among teachers and students there is manifested adesire for a better comprehension of the music of undoubtedly thegreatest contributor to the modern pianistic repertoire--ClaudeDebussy.

Without delving into the realm of musical history, I want toemphasise the captal importance of a master who, at the beginningof this century, brought about a revolution in the art of writingfor the piano, comparable only in its consequences, to that whichChopin had precipitated seventy years before.

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

Why is it that x, many pianists and students reem to have suchdifficully in understanding the proper "atmospheric"rendering, so necessary for an accurate interpretation ofDebussy's works! If I analyze the many examples I have seen, andcases I have had to deal with, I believe this question is easy toanswer. In the first place, the student ought to acquire theproper technical and tonal equipment. Just as athletes must carryon their daily training, so the student must continue the"old-school" way of practising, the cut-and-dry rollingof scales, the slow exercising of hammer-like fingers. But inaddition, another more elusive, delicate and poetic way oftreating the keyboard must also be evolved, without which theunderstanding and execution of Debussy would never become an openbook.

Taking for granted that the student has acquired, or isacquiring the accepted fundamentals of technique, he can alsodevelop himself along more intellectual, colorful, unrestrainedlines. Once thoroughly mastered, the old standards of fingering,position of hands, arms, etc., can be modified, as then it willbe done with a back-ground of knowledge and for a certain defintepurpose. Debussy himself showed us the way in composition, when,studying at the Paris Conservatory under Ernest Guiraud, andalready expert in harmonic intricacies, he used to tease hismaster by using such successions of chords as the following:

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

The same must be observed concerning the interpretation of hismusic. Too many students do not listen enough to themselves. Theygo along the text, unaware of the treasures of coloring, thewealth of light and shade, the shimmering resonance which couldspring out of the sounding board at their command, if only theirimagination, coupled with an adequate equipment, took the upperhand over mere finger action.

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

As a first and all-important principle, I want to point outthe 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 verysoftly? Have you ever made a special practice of it, and remainedat 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 isthe first step I would suggest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The little cushions at the finger tips should be extremelysensitive, and through their "feel," you should almostbe able to foretell the quality of the tone which is going tocome out.

This was one of Debussy's chief instructions:

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

Gradually, you can practise 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 slightresistance, which releases under the pressure of your finger.This part of the action is called in French, the "doubleescape." You can use this to great advantage in"pianissimo" work, by getting your tone from this lowerpart of the stroke. More than ever, keep your fingers in contactwith the keys, and do not allow these to come back all the wayup,--only about half way, keeping the two pedals on all the time.

For the next step, we will proceed to practise the polyphonicproduction of all the chords previously used; that is, to bringout each single note in turn.

Modern music in general, and Debussy's in particular, takesits full significance when expressed through the carefullyplanned superposition of tonal values.

Start with the C major chord:

(Practice in the same way on all possible chords of 3, 4 and 5notes, 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 onthe single note a wider range, and combining the use of bothpedals as explained in the following example:

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

I have often been asked by students, how this bringing out ofa single note can most satisfactorily be done. The finger, whenattackng it, must be held a little firmer than the others. Thesemust remain concentrated on the "pianissimo" tone asexplained in the part dealing with the C major chord. this is awork which requires patience, and careful listening. One must tryagain and again, until an improvement is audible, and so on untilcomplete results are reached.

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

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

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

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

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

When the two hands are plaging octaves together, this coloringcan be more diversified:

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


Debussy seemed almost as reluctant to write down anyindications in this direction, as he was about the fingerings. Helimited 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 atall. And, unfortunately for the student, this applies to manypieces where they would be most necersary for those notthoroughly familiarized with his style. However, it is easy toset a few rules which will be a sure guide:

All runs, arpeggios and passages must alaways be treated fromthe "sonorous," the "harmonic," and the"vibrating" standpoint; never as a display of fingervelocity. Therefore the damper pedal must be used very much whenplaying them. They must never be performed in a "neat andcrisp" fashion, but literally drowned into what might becalled a "wave of tone."

Debussy was so particular about this mellow, liquid toneproduction, that when, on rare occasions, he played in public, herequested 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 sustainthe tone, or to suppres it entirely.

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

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

In order to achieve certain "pianisimo effects (on singlenotes principally), it is better to replace the direct attack ata right angle (as in Ex. 14). by an oblique, slanting, indirectattack, which will bring the finger in contact with the keyprogsessively:

Moreover, in the "direct" attack, the tone isproduced by the extreme tip of the finger, whereas in the"indirect" attack, the finger can be stretched out sothat this position itself cooperates in softening the tone, sincethe progressive attack is done by the elastic little cushion offlesh, 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 thekeyboard" and almost touching the lid, then bringing it downalong a line as shown above in No. I5, passing over the keys asthrough caressing them:

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

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

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

The fact that Debursy, in the "Serenade of the Doll"(Children's Corner) made a special note that the soft pedal bekept even in the "forte" passages, shows he knew thepossibilities of this tonal effect, and it was satisfactory tohim.


A factor of primary importance, for the execution and study ofDebussy's music, is the piano used. No one can practise tonecoloring efficiently on an instrument with a pounded-out action,worn-out hammers, and wabbly pedals. While it is not alwayspossible for students to play on a new piano at all times, stillit is possible, and absolutely necerrary, to have one that iskept constantly in perfect condition, with the action smooth, thetone evenly voiced, and the pitch true.


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

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

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

"Tempo rubato" applies to the delivery of the twobars as a whole, not to any individual beats. One can startslowly, 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, thepalm almost touching the keys.

No. 20. Play the right hand pianistic design (development ofthe chords of the beginning) with the same "lateral"figer action and low position of hand; "bell-like" toneagain in the left hand. In the pages that follow, passage workmust be treated in the same manner, bathed in pedal, with fingersalways close to the keys, and never any dryness.

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

No. 22. "Slowly. In harmonious sonority, as from adistance" The apreggiod 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 methodscan be used:

No. 23. "Sans riguer" means: "without stiffnessin rythm, not too metronoically."

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

No 24. Another striking example of chord playing, with handgliding laterally over the keys. "Sans lourdeur":without heaviness. Bring the upper voice slightly out of the hazyresonance, 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 isable to produce the tone from the "double escape," orlower 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 jointsas soft springs, in order to secure as delicate a tone aspossible.

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

Use much weight, not only from the arms, but from theshoulders. Attacking from too high would produce a tome deficientin quality, harsh and brittle.

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

No. 27. The left hand "floating and muffled." Letthe fingers "linger" on the keys. The attack must comemore from a slight swaying of the wrist and hand, than fromfinger articulation.

Bring out, just a little, the top note of the right handchords, 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 explainedin number 15.

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

The dotted octaves, under the "legato" sign, must beplayed "mellow," with soft "dropping" effectfrom the wrist.

No. 31. Take great care to use distinct ways of attack in theright hand. The middle voice, "legato," must be playedwith a certain firmness, while the chords, as well as the octavesof the bass, should be performed in a soft relaxed, and floatingmanner. However, this effect must be achieved only throughdifference of attack and tone quality, not by playing themiddle 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. Atfirst, it must be practised very slowly.

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

No. 33 & 34. In these, and other compositions where"light virtuosity" play a great part, be most carefulnever to become mechanical. Although of a rapid,running character, too much evident articulation wouldproduce dryness. Here again, a close attack is necessary, withextremely quick and light motion of the finger tips.

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

Other compositions of a similar character:

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

one must be most careful not too exaggerate, not toover-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 therhythmic 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 selectedfrom the "greater Debussy", with the object ofaffording as many profitable hints of practice as possible, Ithink it is worthwhile to outline a reduced list of tencompositions, that will simplify the approach of the student tothe style of Debussy:

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

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