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Memories of learning Claude Debussy – how it fed my imagination (and frustrated me to no end)

Memories of learning Claude Debussy – how it fed my imagination (and frustrated me to no end) featured image

Debussy, relaxed and smiling – rare type of photo for this time period

Sometimes it’s good to attempt really difficult things when you’re really young, because you’re too young to know how hard something actually is. So when I started “Gardens in the Rain” when I was 13, as I began the long and arduous journey of preparing for my Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music (ARCT) degree, I thought, “okay, of course this won’t be easy, but I can do this.”

There were so many notes. Lots of notes. And about a billion accidentals. Sharps, double sharps, naturals, natural/sharps, flats, and modulations I thought I’d never memorize. It’s a fast, fleeting work, to suggest the raindrops dancing and bouncing off the flowers in the garden, and while that’s a pretty picture, imagine a frustrated teenager in a suburban downstairs piano room, cursing and shaking her fist at the keys, trying to learn the damn thing. The worst part of this piece is it finishes with this big broken chord where the left hand has to fly over the right to pounce on a very high E. Sometimes I nailed it, and sometimes I didn’t. You can’t ease into this high note – you have to GO for it, because it’s a very quick flourish. I went for it in my exam, because I’ve always admired musicians who go for broke, risking a bad landing. So, I let ‘er rip. And … instead of a crystalline high E, I managed a solid splat. I remember giving a look at the examiner and examiner-in-training of “omg. Well, I tried, right?” I can’t imagine learning this piece NOW. Too difficult!

It was while learning Debussy’s music, I turned to visual art for inspiration. When I learned about Impressionistic music (a term Debussy disliked), it was obvious to turn to Impressionistic art, and it was around this time I absolutely fell in love with Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, and Degas (I was still studying ballet at this time, so he was important to me). I also fell in love with post-Impressionist van Gogh (to me, the musical equivalent of composer Alexander Scriabin). My older brother, Jackie, was fascinated by Renoir’s “In the Meadow” and my other brother, Jamie, was all over van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. I learned that blending the colours on the palette was like blending tones on the piano using pedal. Since then I’ve shown my piano students paintings from the same era as the piece of music they’re learning, to help them imagine not only the sound of the music, but the visuals of that time.

Renoir’s “In the Meadow”:

van Gogh’s “Starry Night”:

I also fell particularly in love with Monet’s paintings at Giverny – his lushness of colours, and how he combined them, completely rocked my world. This informed and inspired my attempts at Debussy’s music.

One of many paintings Monet created of the gardens at Giverny:

I learned quite a few other pieces, too, “Reflections in the Water”, “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, “Golliwogg’s Cake Walk”, and so many others. One piece I heard either on the radio or at a recital and I immediately set about learning it: “Footsteps in the Snow”. I am to this day, haunted by this brooding, simple-sounding piece, with its slow, calm, yet persistent rhythm, as if to say “you cannot avoid the inevitable”. The final chord of this piece devastated me when I first heard it. It still does.

Here’s Kystian Zimerman performing “Footsteps in the snow”. You’ll likely have to turn up the volume.

And then there’s “The Engulfed Cathedral” – I never got around to learning that one. When I read the story about it, I just about died, and my already hyper imagination went into overdrive. More about it here .

Here’s legendary pianist Arthur Rubenstein (nobody coaxed a warmer, richer tone out of the piano quite like him) live in recital.

2018 marks the centenary of Debussy’s death, so there have been lots of re-issues of recordings – a good time to search iTunes!

Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862 in Seine-et-Oise, France, and died March 25, 1918 in Paris.


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