Hear Debussy Play Debussy: A Vintage Recording from 1913

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.”

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

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Comments (32)
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  • There are some mem­o­rable rolls by Rav­el as well.

  • Angela Shikany says:

    This is so beau­ti­ful. Thank you.

  • 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!

  • Mike Springer says:

    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.

  • 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!

  • Bill Daniels says:

    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.

  • ALISON says:

    float­ing away.…

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

  • Rob Chalfen says:

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

  • Bob McKennee says:

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

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


  • Mike Springer says:

    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.

  • Vivien says:

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

  • Jarrid says:

    Thank you for shar­ing this. So beau­ti­ful.

  • Dave Lara says:

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

  • Tracy Lewis says:

    You will either be drawn into the music and pay care­ful atten­tion or hit the stop but­ton, or wish you had hit the stop but­ton; there is noth­ing here for the casu­al lis­ten­er to enjoy

  • Richard Dozier says:

    I’m won­der­ing if the rolls still exist and if they can be re-record­ed on play­back?

    I’m ask­ing because this (elec­tron­ic) audio record­ing of the roll play­back is obvi­ous­ly quite old and tak­en from a disk with its tell­tale “pops” and “scratch­es” and con­strained son­ic range.

    The orig­i­nal rolls would great­ly ben­e­fit from being record­ed with state-of-the-art audio record­ing in a stu­dio.

  • Lord Koos says:

    Jel­ly Roll Mor­ton made some great piano rolls.

  • Dave Merrick says:

    I had the PRIVILEGE of ‘watch­ing’ George Gersh­win play his “Rhap­sody In Blue” on a beau­ti­ful play­er grand. It was in a col­lec­tor’s qui­et old home in a small farm-town, north­east­ern Nebras­ka. The roll, like this one, had been record­ed by the artist him­self. See­ing those keys ani­mat­ed — even as he first rest­ed his fin­gers in prepa­ra­tion for play­ing — was stun­ning.

  • Cheryl Hillier says:

    I am sure we have ‘Rhap­sody In Blue’ and some Debussy maybe too, but the rolls are a bit raggedy and the titles miss­ing in places, I spent some time restor­ing some of the rolls — the Pianola itself was restored 2005, we played it as chil­dren but the bel­lows had per­ished… Is this of inter­est to any­one? Maybe I need to get the piano tuned and do some record­ings myself?
    There was a chap in Eal­ing, if he is still alive who restored the piano — I am sure he would have con­tacts for oth­er Pianola own­ers and their rolls?

  • Ecaterina Ungureanu says:

    This leaves me with an uncan­ny feel­ing, it’s a piece of audi­ble his­to­ry. To hear it at such a great qual­i­ty is tru­ly a gift. Thanks, Mike.

  • tom tornado says:

    I have a WELTE myself with many rolls. If any­body might come to my home­town of recklinghausen/germany, I will be glad to present it for yr list­ing plea­sure. if any­one has some WELTE rolls for sale, he should con­tact me, thanx for the Debussy link, it was not known to me, keep god#s golf­ball rollin’ TOM TORNADO

  • Jose Contente says:

    Fran­cis­co de Lac­er­da (Ribeira Seca, 11 of May of 1869 — Lis­bon, 18 of July of 1934), bet­ter known by Fran­cis­co de Lac­er­da, was a musi­col­o­gist, com­pos­er and mae­stro Azore­an. He was Debussy fel­low. In the sea­son of 1912–1913 and from 1925 to 1928 he was hired to direct the Great Clas­si­cal Con­certs of Mar­seille. In this peri­od, he con­duct­ed full audi­tions of works such as the Pas­sion Accord­ing to St. John and the Pas­sion Accord­ing to St. Matthew, the Less­er Mass and the Mag­ni­fi­cat of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, the Solemn Mass of Lud­wig van Beethoven, a Ger­man Requiem by Johannes Brahms, Par­si­fal by Wil­helm Richard Wag­n­er, The Brief Life of Manuel de Fal­la and Matheu and The Demoi­selle Élue by Claude Debussy.



  • Martti O. Suomivuori says:

    Thank you Mike Springer for your infor­ma­tive intro.

  • Melody Peterson says:

    Debussy’s piano rolls are a rev­e­la­tion. I’m cur­rent­ly doing an Impres­sion­ist unit with my piano stu­dents — art and his­to­ry as well piano. They are fas­ci­nat­ed and will be even more so as they lis­ten to the very idio­syn­crat­ic play­ing of the com­pos­er! Thank you for being here!

  • Mark Pelham says:

    So hap­py I stum­bled onto this invalu­able record­ing. Thank you!!

  • ctk says:

    you do not have a pay­pal dona­tion link, there­fore not able to sup­port you. Sor­ry.

  • Tim Needler says:

    I have a restored Bald­win grand piano with Welte-Mignon mech­a­nism, and this Debussy roll is one of my favorites to play. The piano sus­tain ped­al (the “loud” ped­al) is acti­vat­ed when this roll is played just as hap­pened when Debussy record­ed the roll, so it is inter­est­ing to watch his ped­al­ing tech­nique when the roll is played. Piano stu­dents espe­cial­ly enjoy watch­ing this aspect.

  • Everett Miller says:

    there is a way for the piano rolls to be rec­og­nized dig­i­tal­ly and then pro­grammed into a mod­ern play­er piano, for instance a Yama­ha Clavi­no­va.
    You can get Gersh­win play­ing Gersh­win in pure dig­i­tal form, play­ing on a Yama­ha Grand and record­ed full dig­i­tal. It’s FANTASTIC music, clean pure repro­duc­tion of him play­ing his music.
    It seems this should be done with Debussy also, rigth?

  • Steve Steele says:

    I real­ize this is an old thread, but here’s some info.

    The piano roll record­ings were trans­ferred to tape and then vinyl before 1990. I know this because when I was study­ing com­po­si­tion and music the­o­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s these record­ings were avail­able on vinyl then. I lis­tened to them many times. I’m guess­ing they were trans­ferred some­time in the ‘60s or ‘70s, but I can’t say for sure, yet. I’ve sent an email to some peo­ple that would know and hope to have an answer soon. I’ll be glad to post the fol­low up here.

    If I had to guess, I’d say Debussy’s archives, includ­ing the record­ings, are locat­ed in the archives at the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France. His auto­graphed scores may be with his pub­lish­er Durand, although they could be at the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France too.

    Hope that helps.


  • James G says:

    Thank you so much for that fur­ther info, Steve. That’s exact­ly what I was look­ing for. Go Mean Green!

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