Look to the past to face the future with absolute confidence. The very thought has a built in paradox: How can looking backwards get you ahead? Yet, this is exactly what happened in the musical arts of France in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th centuries. In my opinion the action of looking backwards to go forward took the extremely brilliant mind of Claude Debussy as well as his contemporary composer friend, Maurice Ravel and others. I have been reading and studying L’art de Toucher Le Clavcin by Francois Couperin. It was first published in 1716. I feel that in some ways, it lays the groundwork for the impressionistic movement. Of course, the harmonies of impressionism differ dramatically from the Couperin’s earlier prototype.
One extremely important instruction that Couperin offers today’s performers of Debussy involves dynamics. That is, whether or not to play loudly or softly in a particular musical passage. Couperin writes in his musical treatise that it is up to the composer to make the music louder or softer by the notes on the page. For a louder section, he places more notes in his chord or musical passage. For softer passages, notes are be removed. Melodies were often supported by thinly realized harmonies. This helps in making subtle playing even when many notes sound at once. Old keyboards did not play louder and softer by degrees: They could only contrast loud and soft by use of a special pedal. According to Couperin, the quantity of notes that sounded at once made the volume. This kept both vulgar and excessively loud playing to a minimum. My teacher learned these techniques from Alfred Cortot in the 1920’s, and I offer piano lessons which offer these techniques.
Today’s pianists, by and large, overplay the compositions of the impressionistic composers. For the most part,the sound of the music takes care of itself by means of the extra notes that that Debussy or Ravel wrote into the musical score. I have been preparing one hour of the of Debussy’s music to be available on this website. In doing so, I have discovered a hidden technique that Debussy used. Its purpose was to tell the pianist what note or chord to emphasize. Also, the absence of the use of this device meant to play the notes or chords in a gentler manner. Since beginning this project, I have nothing but awe for the genius of Debussy. In my humble opinion, I think he was not only had a totally brilliant mind, but he was a great, great innovator with good taste. I cannot describe the wonderful feeling I have anytime I get even a tiny insight into what Debussy had in mind in his music. Stay tuned for more Debussy and Ravel blogs.