I have always loved the piano music of Claude Debussy, and my only regret is that I do not play more of it. As a teenager, La Cathedrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral) was my party piece, a ghostly, impressionistic evocation of the story of the drowned cathedral of Ys, full of spooky parallel harmonies, hints of Gregorian chant, rising and falling crescendos, and very high, delicate notes to represent water and light. Another favourite was the dreamy La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin (The Girl With the Flaxen Hair), which makes generous and gorgeous use of Aeolian harmony and the whole tone scale.
Close your eyes as you listen to Debussy and you see the misty, muted colours of Seurat and Monet, Vuillard and Pissarro. It is the “impressionistic” nature of his music which, I think, makes it so difficult to play well. It’s not just about processing the notes correctly, or observing very careful pedalling; it’s about creating mood and sensation – painting pictures with the music, if you will.
In a bid to learn more Debussy, I have selected Voiles as a starting point. This extraordinary piece, with its strange, nebulous harmonies, is, like a number of his other works, built almost entirely on the whole-tone scale. The title means both ‘sails’ and ‘veils’, and our imagination immediately links both definitions to the wind. Sails are visible means to capture the invisible – the wind. A veil hides a woman’s face and suggests purity. Another meaning of the word “veil” – hidden or unclear emotions – is also suggested in this piece. Edgar Varese, who knew Debussy quite well, said that the piece was really about the dancer Louise Fuller who used diaphanous veils in her routine, which conjures up further, rather more erotic imagery.
The piece literally seems to float off the keyboard, the opening measures in double-thirds suggesting a clean, white sail capturing the wind, a gauzy curtain, of voile, billowing in the breeze, or a semi-transparent scarf caressing the skin. Debussy actually uses the word “caressant” (caressing) at the opening: I feel this refers to tempo, quality of sound, and touch. Even as the textures become a little thicker, there is still an amazing lightness to the music. There is an almost “drowsy” quality to it: this is not a strong breeze. Rather, it is faint, just felt, as tender as a lover’s touch.
I have only just started to learn this piece, and am “doing a Richter”, that is, following the pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s habit (so he claimed!) of learning a piece a page at a time. But already the piece has hooked me in, and I find myself thinking about it when not at the keyboard. I hear it in my head and find myself playing the opening measures on my knee, the arm of the sofa, the soft underbelly of my cat. The warm summer days which have returned, with an accompanying faint, soft breeze, seem the ideal backdrop for learning such a piece. It is also a near-perfect foil for the other pieces by Debussy I am looking at from Pour le Piano, the Prelude and the elegant Sarabande.