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Twelve Études for piano

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Thu., Jan. 22, 2004, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Debussy had enormous respect and admiration for the works of Chopin; he edited them for publication, in fact, in 1915, and it was in the late summer of that year that he composed his Douze Études pour le piano, which were among the last works he lived to complete , the others being the suite En blanc et noir , for two pianos, and the three sonatas that represented half of a projected cycle of six for various instruments (No. 1 for cello and piano, No. 2 for flute, harp and viola, No. 3 for violin and piano).

Chopin, of course composed two sets of etudes, 12 constituting his Op. 10 and another 12 his Op. 25. Debussy, who dedicated his own etudes to the memory of Frédéric Chopin, divided his single set of 12 into two books of six each. They have always been among the least frequently performed of his works in any form, but, as the final ones for the piano alone from a composer who knew and understood the instrument as few others did, they have much to say to us, about the piano and its potentialities and about directions Debussy might have taken if he had lived beyond 1918.

These pieces, despite the acknowledgements to Chopin and Czerny, owe little to any predecessor in respect to style or content. Like the etudes of Chopin and other great pianist-composers, these are definitely not delimited by the pedagogical implications of the title; they are as remarkable for their newness and their substance as for the demands they make on the performer. Certainly there is nothing in them that supports the distorted inferences so many have drawn from the term "Impressionist” and the unfortunate tradition of hazy, "gossamer” interpretations of Debussy's music. They are, in a word, revolutionary—or surely were in 1915.

Book I of these etudes is focused on technical matters, while Book II directs attention to musical forms and devices. Pierre-Laurent Aimard has chosen three of the pieces from Book I and two from Book II:

No. 1, Pour le "cinq doigts”—d'après Monsieur Czerny. This manages to be both the five-finger exercise after Czerny indicated in the title and a parody of such an exercise. The image projected is of a very young player diligently practicing (the opening marking is " sagement ” (well behaved)—until a "wrong note” is struck and the piece becomes more freely animated, in the manner of a gigue.

No. 3, Pour les quartes. Many commentators have regarded this as "the most radical” of the 12 études. Because Debussy found the interval of the fourth to be, as Paul Jacobs put it, "inherently uninteresting,” he devised a piece of considerable length (in respect to most of its companion pieces) in which there is virtually no repetition. The effect is one of constant change and an endless supply of fresh material.

No. 10, Pour les sonorities opposes. If No. 3 is "the most radical,” No. 10, "For opposed sonorities,” is surely the most mystical and evocative. It happens to be also the longest of the 12 études, one in which moods and feelings, as well as sonorities, are contrasted with one another—and here there is repetition. A horn figure, marked "clear and joyous” and sounding as if from afar, reappears in a somewhat altered frame, and there is nothing "joyous” in the end of the piece, which is unexpectedly charged with anguish.

No. 11, Pour les arpèges composes. This contrastingly sunny piece "for composite arpeggios” really has to follow No. 10 in performance, as it provides the necessary release from the suddenly tragic atmosphere of that piece's close. Nothing is hidden or contradictory here: Debussy gives free rein to his capacity for sheer charm.

No. 6, Pour les huit doigts. The pianist is directed to perform this eight-finger exercise without using the thumbs—but we are reminded that Debussy specifically eschewed the idea of providing fingerings, and how this freedom may or may not affect the no-thumbs directive is left entirely to the discretion of the individual performer.