What was Innovative about Debussy’s Approach to Pianism?

~ I’m digging up previous things I’ve written: here is something from 2003 ~

‘Debussy, like Chopin and Beethoven before him, created his own piano’[1], but before he could develop his own brand of pianism, however highly influenced, he was to master the styles of his predecessors. These predecessors were far reaching, ranging from Couperin to Fauré and including the strong influence of Chopin. Chopin’s influence can be witnessed in Debussy’s choice of character piece in his early output including a Mazurka (c. 1890), Tarantelle styrienne (1890), Ballade (originally Ballade slave, 1890) and Nocturne (1892).

We see a development of Chopinesque features in Suite bergamasque (1890). Debussy’s reliance on the past is further exemplified with the Baroque forms in the Menuet and Passpied in this work, though translated into a late-Romantic, French aesthetic. Clair de lune is the first work to have a descriptive title, and certainly earned Debussy, along with other works, the label of ‘impressionist’. Perhaps the Debussy of the 20th century can be seen to appear from the Images (published as Images oubliées 1977, though written 1894). The first use of the term and its interpretation is as thought-provoking as the later Messiaen’s Regards.

 Example 1 Opening of Tarantelle styrienne.

 His early music is certainly concerned with parallelism, perhaps because of his penchant for improvising at the piano such harmonies, especially 9ths. Parallelism certainly finds its roots in pianism, because of the structure of the keyboard and the movement of the hands in such chords. The equal tempering of the instrument allows such harmonic possibilities, including whole-tone scales. Debussy’s interest in the past certainly extended beyond Couperin and would have included the Notre Dame school of Léonin and Pérotin, whose organum would also influence his writing.  The Lent from Images (1894) opens with a monodic line, and the parallelism of the Notre Dame school can be witnessed in the Sarabande from Pour le piano (1894 – 1901). Parallelism is considered a Debussyian feature, and exemplifies his innovation in harmony through its treatment as a sound-object rather than part of a progression; such an innovation was core to Debussy’s work as a composer.

Example 2 ‘Lent’ from Images (1894)

Roy Howat suggests ‘had Debussy written no piano music after 1892, he would be regarded by pianists as a different composer, for his early piano music, far from presaging later works, has a character of its own, reflecting an earlier era.’[2] The decisive factor in marking the conclusion of Debussy’s early period of composition though, was his visit to the Paris Exhibition of 1889.  ‘It is significant that for the new departure [in pianism] signalled by Estampes (1903), Debussy should have chosen as the opening piece a picturesque impression of the Javanese gamelan.’[3] An examination of Debussy’s music prior to this ‘departure’ displays a pianism that pays much homage to his predecessors (primarily Chopin), but the impact of the Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Exhibition left a lasting mark, which ultimately propelled Debussy’s pianism into new domains. It should also be noted that ‘it was indeed [a] growing hostility to prevailing German influences in French music which fostered Debussy’s growing enthusiasm for developments outside the mainstreams of Western European traditions.’[4]The inherent contrapuntal textures, for example, of a gamelan orchestra are easily transferred into a piano texture. The atmospheric resonance however, was something that Debussy experimented with, and certainly became fundamental in many works to follow.

Example 3 ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes (1903)

The very opening displays a ‘layering’ of elements; generally speaking, the lower the sound, the longer the duration (Debussy specifically marks which hand plays what in the first bar). This layering takes place of two staves but we eventually see the introduction of three staves, which Roy Howat writes is not for the convenience of the performer, but for the convenience of Debussy himself in constructing such contrapuntal textures. The textures are exceptionally pianistic, and well suited to the favoured piano of the composer; the German Blüthner, which possessed a deeper touch and a difference in quality between registers. Debussy’s favoured piano certainly clashed with Ravel’s personal choice of an Erard; this had a shallower touch suited to the jeu perlé style of playing (of rapid passage work) promoted by performers/teachers such as Margeurite Long.

The three-part texture predominates throughout Debussy’s output, and one can assume this was due to his choice of piano, where the registers would have had increased definition compared to the uniformity of more recent instruments. This layering of textures is not innovative however and has appeared in many guises; Beethoven sonatas, and the Nocturnes and Mazurkas of Chopin. Whether or not such layering was encouraged by their choice of piano is a matter of conjecture. This ‘multiplicity of simultaneous lines’[5] though is an important characteristic of Debussy’s piano music. It is certainly an important issue of balance pianistically, yet Debussy aids this by careful consideration of registers.

Example 4 Feuilles Mortes from Preludes Book II, opening: Showing the three part texture; the tie in the third bar showing Debussy’s notation for allowing a note to continue to sound with the pedal.

Both pedals are used in ‘Pagodes’, but an interesting point arises with regards to the lack of pedal markings (which is trend throughout Debussy’s piano oeuvre). ‘Pagodes’ does include some markings, which are to highlight extensive use of the sustaining pedal such as at b. 27 – 31. This passage is surprising in sonority, and shows the extent of Debussy’s assimilation of his gamelan experience. It is marked pianissimo, but over the period where the pedals are depressed a ‘cloud’ of sound is forming. Though an innovative approach to pedalling, it is not unparalled (and Philip suggests that Ricardo Viňes was a definitive influence)[6]; Ravel used the pedal similarly on the final page of Jeux d’eau (1901). Therefore the piano is, as Debussy discovered, the only instrument capable of reproducing the resonance of the gamelan. Such use of the pedal was its ‘emancipation’ (and innovation) from a mere cantabile aid, but to an important timbral element in its own right.  Debussy is exploring ‘the resonance created after the impact of the hammer, as the sounds are dying away’[7], and attempting to produce sounds as if the piano was sans marteaux.

Example 5 ‘Pagodes’

The sonorities created by a more liberal pedalling encouraged an investigation of overtones on Debussy’s part. Such experiments (which are extensions of those begun by Chopin, Liszt and Ravel) yielded results found in various pieces spanning his output (though it should be mentioned that his music was not always published in the order of completion, so chronology can sometimes be a problem).  The harmonic series influences the structure of harmonies in several cases, where the upper part forms a link in the series formed by the harmony below. A striking instance of this happens in Canope, which ‘ends on a note that is not actually played.’(Example 6)[8]

Example 6 Canope, b. 30 – 33

‘Pagodes’ is an allusion to a Westernised gamelan, one which is not restricted to the modes and scales of Eastern music, but one that has twelve pitches as its foundation. But the inherent pentatonicism of the music fits the topography of keyboard well, whereby the pentatonic scale manifests its self in the form of the black keys. It is also an intrinsically pianistic trait, and a comfortable one at that, along with ‘playing in the cracks’ with the seconds accompanying the melody (see example 3). Structuring of such dyads is something unique to pianism (often be played with one finger, usually the thumb) but its use here is not unprecedented. Ravel had used both devices in Jeux d’eau (1901) (example 7), which had its own ancestry in Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (1877).

Example 7 b. 78, Jeux d’eau (1901), Ravel.

Water was also a preoccupation of Debussy’s, and it heralded numerous pianistic techniques, passed down from Liszt, and also explored by Ravel, to conjure up florid and perpetual motion. Such techniques were fully established by Ravel’s Jeux d’eau; arpeggios and rapid passagework, the latter being a fundamental aspect of the quintessentially French jeu perlé style of playing. We can witness this type of writing in ‘Pagodes’, though the subject matter is not water. The final piece from Estampes uses a different style of playing to create the illusion of rain, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’. Here we have, for the most part, a quasi-toccata texture, displaying Debussy’s penchant for Couperin and Rameau. It is also a display of the virtuosic element to his musical personality.

Example 8 Jardins sous la pluie, from Estampes (opening)

Virtuosity is an often overlooked element in Debussy’s output, and several works display this to Lisztian proportions. Such a characteristic adds to the composer’s range of expression, yet the virtuosically inclined works do not show the intense Romantic expression of Liszt[9]. His influence is apparent through the appearance of ‘actual mechanics of Lisztian pianism appear[ing] again and again …[showing] his deep knowledge of the repertoire.’[10] This music is idiomatically composed for the piano, yet Debussy himself was not a pianist of virtuoso abilities.

‘The impressionist application of virtuoso figurations to create atmospheric effects was adopted by Debussy in his piano music from Estampes (1903)’[11] The first piece from Images (Ist series, 1904 – 5), ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ exemplifies this virtuosity; the legato-phrased chords, the wide leaps (b. 9 for example, shown in example 9), the jeu perlé passages and the melody placed in the tenor register. Voicing is certainly an issue here for the pianist. What is innovative here is the particular chords Debussy has selected; they fall under the hand gracefully, and are comfortable due to the certain combinations of black and white keys. Like much of Ravel’s music, this would not have the same effect if transposed to a different key. It makes an important point, that certain combinations of notes appear to have been chosen for kinaesthetic reasons.

Example 9 Reflets dans l’eau, Images (opening)

The juxtaposition of black and white keys is exceptionally idiomatic pianism. A fine and influential example is the cadenza of Jeux d’eau (see example 10), and a humorous example can be found in the opening of Debussy’s first etudes (1915), where the A-flat intrudes on the white note ‘Czerny’ exercise (example 11). Such juxtaposition can also account for much of the bitonality of the later piano works, notably Blanc et noir (1915) for two pianos.

Example 10 Jeux d’eau

Example 11 First Etudes (1915)

Though many works exist in his oeuvres that are virtuosic, several are virtuosic for virtuosities sake. These include ‘Feux d’artifice’ (from Preludes II 1911) and ‘Poissons d’or’ (from Images II 1907), certainly Roberts tells us that ‘pianism, of the transcendental kind, was one of the many inspirations for ‘Poisson d’or’’[12]. Only one work verges on the Lisztian in terms of its virtuosity, and that is the prelude (from book II) ‘Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest’ (1911). Perhaps the innovations are not in the pianism in these pieces, but in the compositional process. Nevertheless, the pianism makes use of octaves, tremolandi and the popular jeu perlé.

Example 12 ‘Poissons d’or’ (from Images  II)

[Debussy] successfully attempts a distinctively new look at a well-established musical genre… in his Etudes (1915)[13]. The work encapsulates Debussy’s innovations in pianism, while also serving as preparation for the performer to study Debussy’s music. Though not as virtuosic as the previously identified virtuosic works, they remain difficult and as a result are rarely performed. Compositionally, they show a crystallised version of Debussy’s mosaic approach to form and what Rebecca Leydon has shown as ‘cinematic techniques’[14]. The set was dedicated to Chopin, and one can see Debussy’s continuation of such genres evident in the Préludes also. The twelve etudes include ‘for five fingers’, followed by studies for thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. There is an etude for ‘eight fingers’, ‘chromatic notes’, ‘contrasting sonorities’, and finally ‘chords’. Certainly Debussy was following the footsteps of the great pedagogue Czerny, leaving a legacy of innovative pianistic studies that would prepare pianists for his own music and much of what was to come.

As a pianist-composer, Debussy certainly continued the approach of his predecessors; to advance pianism through their music, and to leave some form of etudes to aid the performer to overcome these advances. Debussy’s own innovations are often echoes of Ravels, and Jeux d’eau is a work whose influence was to ripple through the piano music of composers of years to come. Ricardo Viňes certainly aided the transferral of pianistic ideas between the two composers, and it has been often mistakenly attributed that Debussy was the instigator of many innovations. Nevertheless, Debussy’s legacy is one of sonority, opening up numerous possibilities making the piano sound as if it was sans marteaux. Roberts makes a similar point, ‘that one of the principal technical problems for a performer of Debussy’s piano music is the production of sound, the control of all those elements of pianism for which we use such words as texture, colour, sonority, and tone.’[15] Robert Philip reminds us though, that ‘it now seems abundantly clear that the exciting new developments in piano music in the early years of the twentieth century were firmly rooted in nineteenth century precedent.’[16] Debussy’s importance in the pianism innovation cannot be ignored, continuing where ‘Chopin left off’[17].


 Dent, Edward J, The Pianoforte and its Influence on Modern Music (The Musical Quarterly, Vol II, 1916, pp. 271 – 294)

Gartner, Kenneth R, The Expansion of Pianism since 1945 (PhD dissertation, New York University 1979)

Leydon, Rebecca, Debussy’s Late Style and the Devices of the Early Silent Cinema, from

Orledge, Robert, Debussy’s Piano Music (The Musical Times, Jan 1981 pp. 21 – 27)

Pasler, Jann, Timbre, Voice-leading, and the Musical Arabesque in Debussy’s Piano Music, from Debussy in Performance.

Roberts, Paul, Images (USA, Amadeus Press 1996)

Ed. Rowland, David, The Cambridge Companion to the Piano (Cambridge, CUP 1998)

Samson, Jim, Music in Transition (London, J. M. Dent & Sons 1993)

Schmitz, E. R., The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Dover, New York 1966).

Smith, Richard Langham-, Debussy Studies (CUP, 1997)

Whittall, Arnold, Tonality and the Whole-Tone Scale in the music of Debussy,  (Music Review 36 (1975): 261 – 71)

Whittall, Arnold, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (New York, OUP 1999)


[1] Gartner, K (1979)

[2] Howat, R (Series 1, Volume 1)

[3] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 161

[4] Samson, J. pp. 34

[5] Passler, Jann

[6] Philip, R. Cambridge Companion, pp. 193

[7] Roberts, P (1996),  pp. 157

[8] Roberts, P (1996) pp.163

[9] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 178

[10] Ibid. pp. 181

[11] Philip, R in Cambridge Companion, pp. 192

[12] Roberts, Paul (1996) pp. 191

[13] Whittall, A. (1999)pp. 18

[14] Leydon, R. (article)

[15] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 285

[16] Philip, R in Cambridge Companion pp. 192

[17] Grove article, ‘Piano Playing’

3 responses to “What was Innovative about Debussy’s Approach to Pianism?”

  1. Thank you very much for this post from which I have learned much about Debussy’s mechanisms and processes. I feel that the next time I hear his music I will be more ready to appreciate it’s merits and revelations than I have been in the past.
    Glad you brought this out of the archives.

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