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.”

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in Jan­u­ary 2013.

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Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Hear a 1930 Record­ing of Boléro, Con­duct­ed by Rav­el Him­self

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces 7‑Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Young­ster Per­form for John F. Kennedy (1962)

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