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Debussy plays Clair de Lune
#2803233 01/17/19 06:11 PM
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Thought you might like to hear how Debussy interprets his own music. Things to note.

He arpeggiates most of the large chords. (This is done to reduce the impact or intial attack sound of large chords and comes from baroque harpsichord technique.)

He often leads with the bass note, even when the right hand is meant to be played simultaneously. (This is done to allow the upper notes to reinforce the bass partials, imparting a more singing quality to the bass.)

His tempo varies dramatically. (No idea why he does this. Very involved emotionally in his music I guess. He's French after all.)

You may notice other things that are not in the score.

It is important to understand that what he does was common practice in his era.


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803258 01/17/19 07:30 PM
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Wow, is this really an acoustic recording from 1913? If so, it's amazingly clean, no surface pops. But I wonder how much was lost in that process?


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803259 01/17/19 07:30 PM
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I have heard a few other Debussy performances of his own music (can't remember which pieces)and recall being shocked by what I heard. But this performance shocked me a lot more than the other performances I've heard.

I think if someone played this piece like this today the teacher/listener would think the person was an amateur who could not count. The tempo fluctuations are the most disconcerting for me although I don't like all the arpeggiated chords either. I find it almost depressing to listen to and could only make it through the first two "pages". If this is how Debussy intended the piece to be played or heard it in his head I don't like the piece anymore!! In terms of tempo variation this seems far more extreme than Paderewski's playing which I usually think of as the most different compared to modern piano playing.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803264 01/17/19 07:42 PM
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It also includes a link a 'recording of Debussy playing' - quite long, but includes Clair de Lune. Not sure how they could get that, but worth a listen for comparison.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3NX_TrxfVk

Last edited by petebfrance; 01/17/19 07:43 PM.

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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
JohnSprung #2803284 01/17/19 08:29 PM
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Originally Posted by JohnSprung

Wow, is this really an acoustic recording from 1913? If so, it's amazingly clean, no surface pops. But I wonder how much was lost in that process?

It is an acoustic recording, but I don't know if it is a straight piano roll playback, or an acoustic recreation on a modern piano of an acoustic recording of Debussy. This has been done with Rachmaninov's acoustic recordings.

Either way, it is a shock to hear the 'master' play his own music. I have to accept that this was the performance practice of the era. We have copious letters, treatises, reviews and articles discussing this approach. As a result, I really do think Debussy wrote his piano works with this in mind. That being said, I do it at home, but not in public, at least, not to the extent he does. I arpeggiate chords and lead bass notes often in romantic and impressionist music where it, in my mind, demands it, but judiciously.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803301 01/17/19 09:13 PM
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Well, at the Conservatoire he started out well on the piano, but he was not a diligent piano student according to one of his professors. He did well in his first and second "competitions", but failed out in his third and fourth, thereby becoming ineligible to continue piano at the conservatoire. But he still continued composition there.

So maybe he wasn't an outstanding pianist (or just lazy?) and didn't really care how he played, depending on how he felt?



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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803302 01/17/19 09:15 PM
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This is an acoustic recording of a reproducing piano roll. From the youtube poster's channel (read this and more by clicking "show more" on the youtube posting):

"Claude-Achille Debussy - Clair de Lune (Mondglanz, Mondschein, Moonlight), Suite Bergamasque, Debussy, piano. The Suite bergamasque was first composed in 1890-1905.
"Claude Debussy Plays His Finest Works"
Claude Debussy, Piano Roll, 1913.

NOTE: This is NOT an ACOUSTIC RECORDING. This is a recording obtained by PIANO ROLL, see further details below. But acoustic recordings were made by Debussy with Mary Garden and you can hear here: https://youtu.be/W3NX_TrxfVk?t=1h17m25s (tempo 01:17:25)"


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803307 01/17/19 09:32 PM
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This has a lot of dynamic range, which rules out conventional player piano systems. There was one that used carbon rods dipping into mercury as a variable resistance encoder on the piano, but they were rare at the time this was encoded (1913), and would have required a very rare playback setup to, at a much later date, go from the roll to playback on a piano and recording on disc or tape.

The other possibility, the one I first thought of, is that this was a mechanical analog acoustic recording on a wax cylinder. That would account for the dynamic range, but not for the extremely clean sound, unless someone who knows what they're doing did a whole lot of work on it.

Would it be possible to investigate the provenance of this recording?


I know of two Rach recordings, analog acoustic on disc. There was a mechanical one in 1925 and an electronic one in 1929, which has been carefully restored.


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803338 01/18/19 01:18 AM
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That's not Debussy, it's obviously Leonardo di Caprio. I find this piece to be very difficult because of the rhythm but if the composer himself doesn't give a damn maybe I can go for it laugh

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803346 01/18/19 02:06 AM
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Originally Posted by prout
It is important to understand that what he does was common practice in his era.


Thanks for that, I enjoyed it.

His performance makes sense to me. I kept thinking of Monet's paintings where it's about the ambience and atmosphere vs. the details. It also reminded me of the Monet's Gardens at Giverny outside of Paris.

Re: Rhythm
I think a good argument can be made that rhythm doesn't (and didn't always) adhere to the strict tempo written on the page. For example, Gregorian Plainchant is measure-less. The rhythms change depending on the words being sung. In fact, they once had restrictions on using repeating "dance-like" tempos (3/4, 4/4 etc.).

Live performance-wise it can be very appealing to let the atmosphere/ambience decide the tempo - I can imagine playing Clair de Lune at some night café in Paris and letting the natural rhythm of the night decided the tempo in the moment (people walking by, stopping, coming in, going out, relaxing etc). I do this a lot during family gatherings, changing the tempo/rhythm if the dogs get riled up, or when there's a lull in the conversation, or maybe playing more up-beat when there is uproarious laughter.

A recording of a live 'improvisation/interpretation' like that takes it out of context and could make it confusing (I like to think that's what is happening with Debussy's recording). But if we were in the room with Debussy, all the funny thing he does in the recording might make a lot of sense.

Of course, in the context of a teacher/student it would never really fly to have the student play 'what he feels' - and in our world where performances are so strictly structured, we rarely hear a performer improvising/interpreting a piece like that according to their environment.

-- -- --

For those who've done theatrical/stage improvisation, you know that what was gut-bustingly funny in-person may sound extremely idiotic when re-told at a later time. This is why structured jokes and skits can be re-done but can lose that divine spark, while theatrical/stage improvisation has to be done in the moment and many times is much funnier than any structured joke/skit - but is almost impossible to repeat.

For example, I just watched a live improv/comedy show a few nights ago. People were literally falling out of their seats with laughter and couldn't get back into their chairs. If I tell you that that the whole joke was that this guy had literally fallen in love with his furniture, you'd think I was insane (and yet I have to stop typing because I'm laughing at it again).

Debussy's recording may be in the same vein. It just comes down to - 'you had to be there".



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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803379 01/18/19 05:13 AM
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When I was very young I didn't want to become a concert pianist. Why would I want to play the same pieces day after day? So boring. Now many, many years later I realise that every time you play a piece it is different. Indeed it should be different.

I like the way he played this piece and it made sense to me. Have started to listen to the longer session.


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803415 01/18/19 07:27 AM
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Listening to various concert pianists play the same songs makes you realise that it is not about the notes. It's about HOW you play them and we all play them different.


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
Artur Gajewski #2803428 01/18/19 08:54 AM
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Originally Posted by Artur Gajewski
Listening to various concert pianists play the same songs makes you realise that it is not about the notes. It's about HOW you play them and we all play them different.

That is so true. The same holds true for Opera Singers.



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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
NobleHouse #2803444 01/18/19 09:29 AM
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Originally Posted by NobleHouse
Originally Posted by Artur Gajewski
Listening to various concert pianists play the same songs makes you realise that it is not about the notes. It's about HOW you play them and we all play them different.

That is so true. The same holds true for Opera Singers.

+1


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Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803493 01/18/19 10:48 AM
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This thread prompted me to review my personal archive of long-play records -- and I found the 3-record set "Legendary Masters of the Piano". And the common element was that the original recordings were made using the Welte piano, a specially constructed instrument that produced sound reproduction with astonishing fidelity and subtlety. In this series, Debussy was represented playing "La Plus Que Lente", in 1913, and so I suspect this recording comes from the same performing session. And, yes, Debussy, to say the least, took extensive liberties with both of his own compositions, providing to my ear a highly personal, almost quasi-improvisatory rendition with a strong emphasis on late Romantic pianistic gestures. It gives me the impression that Debussy didn't take either piece too seriously in terms of "high art" -- he saw them rather as "confections" to be tossed off, albeit with aristocratic panache.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803507 01/18/19 11:07 AM
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Can anyone post an example(other than another performance by Debussy) where the tempo and rhythm is changed so much from the score?

I've listened to a fair number of recordings by pianists like Paderewski and dePachman and usually considered them to be the most extreme compared to present day piano playing. I mostly didn't like them but they didn't upset me anywhere near as much as the one by Debussy. I think Debussy far exceeds them in his tempo fluctuations/distortions which occur in almost every measure.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
Groove On #2803514 01/18/19 11:19 AM
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Originally Posted by Groove On
Live performance-wise it can be very appealing to let the atmosphere/ambience decide the tempo - I can imagine playing Clair de Lune at some night café in Paris and letting the natural rhythm of the night decided the tempo in the moment (people walking by, stopping, coming in, going out, relaxing etc). I do this a lot during family gatherings, changing the tempo/rhythm if the dogs get riled up, or when there's a lull in the conversation, or maybe playing more up-beat when there is uproarious laughter.
This makes little sense to me.

The tempo fluctuations(every measure) are so frequent that no environment could be that chaotic. I've never heard of a single example of a classical performer saying that any deviations from the score were made on the spot based on the changing ambiance of the venue.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
JohnSprung #2803529 01/18/19 12:03 PM
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Originally Posted by JohnSprung
I know of two Rach recordings, analog acoustic on disc. There was a mechanical one in 1925 and an electronic one in 1929, which has been carefully restored.

Rachmoninov did many acoustic recordings through early 1942. Also some piano rolls.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
prout #2803540 01/18/19 12:22 PM
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I think we must accept, based on the preponderance of evidence from piano rolls, acoustic recordings, and the literature of the era, that performance practices were very different from at least Bach (and probably much further back) until the middle 20th Century.

Bach wrote that he expected the performer to alter his music as the spirit moved the performer. Baroque ornamentation is the obvious simple example. Mozart sometimes just had sketches of music that he improvised on in an orchestral performance, much like Miles Davis penned for his group. Chopin made changes to his music at every publication, and even sent different versions of the same piece simultaneoulsy to different publishers.

We get so stuck on the idea that a score is 'the word of god'. It isn't, and it never completely conveys what the composer thought or intended.

More importantly, it is my belief that composed music is only half the equation. The composer put ink spotches on paper that represents an acoustic idea. But that idea has no existence until it is transformed into sound by the performer, who is the other half of that equation. It is our job to make music, and how we interpret a composer's idea varies with our life experience. Each era brings different conventions and expectations.

Debussy recorded his works for public consumption and more importantly, to make money. I doubt he would put out a substandard product.

Re: Debussy plays Clair de Lune
pianoloverus #2803542 01/18/19 12:30 PM
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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Can anyone post an example(other than another performance by Debussy) where the tempo and rhythm is changed so much from the score?.


Given that this was done using a keystroke encoding system, it's possible that the variations are an artifact of that system. Unlike an analog recording, speed variations in the cutting and playing of the paper roll would have no effect on the frequency of the notes, only on their timing.


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