Debussy Plays Debussy: The Great Composer’s Playing Returns to Life

A century ago, the great French composer Claude Debussy sat down at a contraption called a Welte-Mignon reproducing piano and recorded a series of performances for posterity.  The machine was designed to encode the nuances of a pianist’s playing, including pedaling and dynamics, onto piano rolls for later reproduction, like the one above.

Debussy recorded 14 pieces onto six rolls in Paris on or before November 1, 1913. According to Debussy enthusiast Steve Bryson’s Web site, the composer was delighted with the reproduction quality, saying in a letter to Edwin Welte: “It is impossible to attain a greater perfection of reproduction than that of the Welte apparatus. I am happy to assure you in these lines of my astonishment and admiration of what I heard. I am, Dear Sir, Yours Faithfully, Claude Debussy.”

The selection above is “La soirée dans Grenade” (“Grenada in the evening”), from Debussy’s 1903 trio of compositions titled Estampes, or “Prints.” Debussy was inspired by the Symbolist poets and Impressionist painters who strove to go beyond the surface of a subject to evoke the feeling it gave off. “La soirée dans Grenade” is described by Christine Stevenson at Notes From a Pianist as a “sound picture” of Moorish Spain:

Debussy’s first-hand experience of Spain was negligible at that time, but he immediately conjures up the country by using the persuasive Habenera dance rhythm to open the piece–softly and subtly. It insinuates itself into our consciousness with its quiet insistence on a repeated C sharp in different registers; around it circles a languid, Moorish arabesque, with nasal augmented 2nds, and a nagging semitone pulling against the tonal centre, occasionally interrupted by muttering semiquavers [16th notes] and a whole-tone based passage. Debussy writes Commencer lentement dans un rythme nonchalamment gracieux [Begin slowly in a casually graceful rhythm] at the beginning, but later Tres rythmé [Very rythmic] in a brightly lit A major as the dance comes out of the shadows, ff [Fortissimo–loudly], with the click of castanets and the stamping of feet.

Debussy was 52-years-old and suffering from cancer when he made his piano roll recordings. He died less than five years later, on March 25, 1918. Since then his beautiful and evocative music has secured a place for him as one of the most influential and popular composers of the 20th century. As Roger Hecht writes at Classical Net, “Debussy was a dreamer whose music dreamed with him.”

via 3 Quarks Daily

Related content:

Rare 1946 Film: Sergei Prokofiev Plays the Piano and Discusses His Music


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  1. D. Mathews says . . . | January 16, 2013 / 11:55 am

    There are some memorable rolls by Ravel as well.

  2. Angela Shikany says . . . | January 16, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    This is so beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Michael Schoen says . . . | January 16, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    Wonderful to hear Debussy…but wondering. Are there no modern devices to reproduce these rolls? Why was the fidelity so poor (certainly not compared to the recording quality of 1913)? There were clicks and pops as though this was an old LP. The value of these piano rolls was that they could be reproduced on an instrument as if they were played live!

  4. Mike Springer says . . . | January 16, 2013 / 12:29 pm

    I’m not sure, Michael, but I think the recording is less than 15 years old. There was an album released in 2000 called Claude Debussy: The Composer As Pianist. That record includes all 14 roll recordings as well as four actual studio recordings of Debussy accompanying the soprano Mary Garden on piano in 1904.

    Thanks Angela.

    Thanks for the information, D. Mathews. We might do something on Ravel (and other composers who recorded on piano rolls) in the future.

  5. Sheryll bellman says . . . | January 17, 2013 / 5:51 am

    I have piano rolls for Weber Player piano that were recorded by George Gershwin that are of the same quality…with all of the nuances of his playing. The piano is very much in need of tuning, but the rolls are also exquisite!

  6. Bill Daniels says . . . | January 17, 2013 / 10:51 am

    The Gershwin rolls were re-recorded in the late 20th Century bu converting the rolls to Disclavier files and recording them being played back on two pianos using modern recording techniques. I would imagine that the Debussy rolls, as well as the Ravel rolls would benefit from the same treatment.

  7. ALISON says . . . | January 17, 2013 / 3:09 pm

    floating away….

  8. Christine Stevenson says . . . | January 18, 2013 / 1:22 pm

    Very honoured, Mike, to be quoted! Greetings from snowy Suffolk, UK.

  9. Rob Chalfen says . . . | January 18, 2013 / 11:38 pm

    might be from a 1950 Columbia lp; the cd Composer as Pianist is impeccable sonically

  10. Bob McKennee says . . . | January 19, 2013 / 1:43 am

    What an astounding picture! I’d like to selectively share with as many people as possible.

  11. Boise Bernard Queen says . . . | January 19, 2013 / 6:14 am

    Extremely impressive!
    I love listening to Debussy as well as Rachmaninoff and Ravel

  12. Mike Springer says . . . | January 19, 2013 / 9:04 am

    Thanks, Christine. It’s an honor to hear from you. Your blog [Notes From a Pianist] is fascinating and beautifully written. I hope people who enjoyed this post will explore your series, “Debussy A-Z.”

    And thanks to all who have commented.

  13. Vivien says . . . | January 19, 2013 / 10:21 am

    extraordinary to think this recording is 100 years old. Very moving to hear the composer play his own work.

  14. Jarrid says . . . | January 19, 2013 / 12:02 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. So beautiful.

  15. Dave Lara says . . . | July 15, 2013 / 7:26 pm

    I always called this mermaid music when I was a child.

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