No classical piano syllabus would be complete without an appearance from this influential Frenchman.
Yes, Claude Debussy is undoubtedly a key classical figure of the late 18th and early 19th century. Ever inspired by the poets and painters around him, his orchestral works and piano pieces are born from the colours and textures of Monet’s lillies, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and the evoking words and phrases of Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire.
Sweet Suite Bergamasque
Undoubtedly one of Debussy’s most well-known and iconic compositions for piano is “Clair de Lune”. If you’ve never heard it before, WHERE have you been? You probably haven’t been back to 1905 for the publication of the Suite Bergamasque, of which Clair de Lune is the third movement (he began composing the suite 15 years earlier, in 1890!).
“Clair de Lune”, French for “Moonlight”, is another piece in which Debussy leans in to his characteristic sound - a dreamlike, whimsical exploration of light, colour and sound. With inspiration drawn again from poetry, this time Paul Verlaine’s “Clair de Lune”, Debussy took his somewhat scandalous approach to harmony (remember, this was the early 1900s!) and created this meditative, calm and ethereal composition.
The piece is in D flat major but, in true Debussy style, is extremely tonally ambiguous, and never lets the listener relax into this key at all. The beginning section gives us harp-like flourishes, the middle section demands a little more of the player in terms of speed and technicality, and the third section brings us back to the initial theme, but this time in a more mysterious light. The listener does get the satisfaction of a perfect cadence right at the end (that V-I that we all know and love!), which feels like a relief to say the least.
We have the pleasure of bringing this usually more challenging piece into the realm of the Debut grade. “Clair de Lune” is a true classic for piano, and to have the opportunity to grasp this in the earlier days of learning is nothing short of wonderful!
Harmony in Motion
We couldn’t go into those upper grades without some truly demanding Debussy amongst the ranks, and so, we’ve brought the “Arabesque No.1 in E” to our Grade 8 syllabus. Another perfect example of Debussy ripping up the harmonic rule book, this piece feels atmospheric and magical. He frequently makes use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales throughout all of his works, and this is no exception. The scales embedded within the melodies lend themselves to a light and airy feel, simply because there’s a lot of space between the notes.
It must be said that the technical difficulty in “Arabesque No.1 in E” lies not in the harmonic function, but the rhythmic complexities. Debussy uses lots of two against three polyrhythms which can be tricky to get your head around, but the end result is filled with buoyancy, with the melody sounding as though it’s floating on waves of sound.
We really hope this has inspired you to pick up some Debussy and give it a go. There is arguably nothing more rewarding than completing one of his beautiful musical “sketches” or “poems”, and basking in the glorious artistry of it all.