Look to the Past to Face the Future

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.

Claude Debussy in 1908.
                                                                                                                                              Debussy is not the man who would be king:
                                                                                                                                               He is the king!  



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 volumeThis 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.



Preludes set the musical tone of an event be it a wedding, church service or a concert.  But what is not known to most people is that n the baroque era, around 1700,  a keyboard soloist would play a prelude while the audience was settling down, i.e. before the program of the concert actually started.  While patrons were still finding their seats, keyboard player would improvise flashy runs and passages on the spot.  The audience marvel at his talent thus peeking their interest in the concert.


The prelude gave the performer the opportunity  to check:

  1. The acoustics of the room and
  2. The resonance of the instrument. Thus, if the instrument had short sustaining power, he would play trills and tremolos faster.
  3. And that he had to play slow pieces at a faster tempo.
  4. The Prelude also served the purpose of allowing the performer to judge the action or response of the keys.

If the acoustics of the room were dead, the soloist would quicken the tempo. If the acoustics were  live, he would observe slower markings. In effect the soloist did the sound check; thus acting like a modern day sound engineer. If my reader would like to know more about what performers did before electrical sound engineering I recommend reading  Francois Couperin (1668-1733) in his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin , published in 1716.

Francois Couperin author of  L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin 


For years, I’ve kept a log of my piano practice and still do.  The Preludes by Chopin are regular part of my warm ups. I choose three. The first emphasizes work with the right hand. The second emphasizes the left. The third works both hands equally. Chopin was a great fan of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In writing his Preludes, Chopin chose Bach for the model. As Bach wrote preludes in all the key signatures, so did Chopin. Chopin’s 1st Prelude is a stylistic copy of Bach’s 1st Prelude in Book I of the Well Tempered Clavichord. Both hands interlock in the continuous motion of 16th notes.  Chopin, however, gives this prelude beautiful melodic import. This characterizes his then newer style of writing music.


For centuries, preludes were written as absolute music. Absolute music is defined as music that is meant to be free of any extra musical implications.  As absolute music, preludes were simply intended to be played as an introduction to a longer work. That was it.  In his preludes Debussy changes tradition in a humorous manner. He numbers each Prelude with Roman numerals on the title page. Innocent enough.  However according to the Paris edition by Durand et Cie. copyright 1910, he broke the tradition.What he did reminds me the surprise toy that we used to find in boxes of Cracker Jacks. At the very end of each Prelude, he zings you with a descriptive title! Thus, for example when we play Prelude X, we think that that is all we are playing.  But at the bottom of the last page,  we learn that we have really been playing, La Cathedrale engloutie  (The engulfed or sunken Cathedral). I know that Debussy had fun with this intentional reversal.


I’ve been practicing to make a recording of 60 minutes of Debussy’s music. What a task! He was  a first place award winning concert pianist. That fact together with his avowed goal of braking all previous rules as much as possible makes him very difficult to play. His rule breaking, I must admit, is always in good taste.  My teacher, Mischa Kottler, who studied in Paris and Vienna in the 1920’s (see blog) wanted me, with one of his last wishes, to give a Debussy concert. I have upped my practicing for this purpose.  I’m finding out that 3.5 hours daily is not enough. I’ll have to up it even more; or, it will not happen. Keep watching for my hour on the web site of recorded Debussy. I’m determined.