Debussy - La plus que Lent
“It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you.” (Claude Debussy)
Debussy wrote La plus que lente in 1910, the same year he composed the first set of Preludes. His style was mature and his ideas about art and music were very much those of a new beginning rather than a continuation of tradition.
He once referred to Wagner’s music as “A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” and repeatedly stated the need to abandon the old constraints of theory and form, and express nature and feeling without artificiality.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is for the confident, sensitive and highly musical student who has mastered cantabile playing and has a good grasp of multi-layered dynamics, pedalling and rubato. They will already have explored Chopin’s waltzes and Schumann’s miniatures, along with some of Debussy’s other piano music such as the Preludes.
Any student who is unable to relax into a genuinely free rubato will have great difficulty conveying the mood and effect of this piece. Uninhibited (but not chaotic) expressiveness and a wide but well controlled dynamic range are essential.
Style & Tempo
The style of the music is very typical of Debussy’s musical innovations, with its unresolved dissonances, unprepared modulations and irregular phrases.
However, it is also a direct descendent of the nineteenth-century Waltz, written in France at a time when the waltz was still widely danced in large and small social gatherings. It therefore contains constant echoes of its historical context (see Background).
The more awareness of these resonances the student has, the more they will be able to liberate their playing and give it the required depth of understanding and spontaneity.
Phrasing & Articulation
The phrasing of La Plus Que Lente is on one level quite straightforward.
Played (or imagined) “straight” and without rubato the music organises itself into easily identifiable phrases which a student of music theory would have no difficulty marking out with brackets on the score.
Tone & Texture
It is worth listening to a transcription for violin and piano to gain an extra sense of the tonal and textural possibilities of this piece.
A version for violin was circulating from the outset when Debussy apparently handed the piece to a celebrated Romany fiddler to play at a Parisian hotel (presumably to the kind of bourgeois audience he hoped to transport to imaginary lands).
The performers here are David Oistrakh - violin and Vsevolod Topilin - piano:
The final performance will be free, flexible and extensively pedalled, but to obtain the full range of tonal subtleties there is no escaping the need to lay good foundations.
The need for a relaxed, flowing and perhaps lazy atmosphere in the music does not excuse the student from possessing strength, agility and precision in technique. These are part of the framework which is then artfully disguised to provide a musical experience that seems effortless.
The main principles to observe in fingering this piece are as follows:
1. student’s hand size and technical fluency – comfort and relaxation should be given priority
2. pedalling – possibility to create legato, hold extended notes and add layers
3. phrasing and the need to avoid misplaced emphasis, especially in using the thumb
4. Debussy’s use of rests and ties, and whether it is physically possible to hold tied notes
5. texture/counterpoint – the all-important layering of sounds to bring out the line and give it subtle accompaniment
6. dynamic level
7. overall choice of sonorities and speeds – some fingerings may not work well when played fast
Effective pedalling is of the utmost importance.
The student must listen very carefully to the sound at all times. There is a need to find a middle way between over-pedalling and producing a muddy sound, and under-pedalling which would cut off tied notes that cannot physically be held but need to be heard.
The instrument and performance acoustic may also require alterations to the chosen pedalling patterns so I would reiterate the vital importance of the student being able to hear the sound as it is being produced and pedal accordingly.
There are at least seven phases to the learning of this piece:
1. reading the notes and rhythms accurately (with great alertness to the key signature and accidentals, especially on the last page)
2. developing a secure progress from note to note and chord to chord (consistent fingering and accurate hand movement)
3. refining tonal range, incorporating arm weight, dynamics and pedalling
4. exploring the interpretative possibilities, including the extent of rubato and application of marked tempo changes, as well as the mood(s) and intended effect on the audience
5. allowing the music to “settle” and become a part of the student’s musical language
7. learning from the performance and revisiting 4-6
Slow, accurate practice will always be the foundation of this piece.
No attempt at spontaneity will be successful in performance when there is uncertainty about the notes, the fingering or the sound being produced.
The first few bars of this piece are a minefield: they set the mood and lay out the musical material, which itself is simple to the point of tedious repetition, all at a challenging pianissimo dynamic level.
Further on at bar 10 comes a potentially nasty discord which needs to be managed into an acceptable sound. All these pitfalls are easy to overlook when compared with the more obvious technical difficulties of later passages such as bars 37 onwards, 86 onwards, etc.
An Excellent performance will be quite an experience for the audience. There will be a sense of floating away out of everyday life and into a swirling world of colour and emotion. The technical security of the performance will be unnoticed amid the exhilaration, unpredictability and contrasts which are expressed. Pedalling will be subtle and unobtrusive, supporting sonority, continuity and colour. The melodic lines will be flexible and beautifully shaped, with bass notes and accompanying textures providing just the right amount of support. Articulations, tempo changes and dynamic markings will be observed with such empathy that they will seem to flow spontaneously from the performer’s own response to the music. Rubato will seem entirely natural. The waltz origins of the music will be clearly referenced, although their significance will depend on the interpretation, which may clothe the waltz with homage, irony, nostalgia or even dislike. Whatever the chosen interpretation, it will be welcomed by the audience for its integrity and effectiveness.
Here is a performance by Rubinstein:
A Good performance will perhaps lack the total accuracy and technical command of the Excellent, but mistakes and infelicities will never disrupt the mood or flow of the music. The rubato will be nicely judged and all the tempo and dynamic changes will be in place, making a performance that follows the composer’s directions and catches the free spirit of his overall intention. There may well be moments of pure poetry and the air of danger that infuses the piece will be detectable in places, whilst probably keeping both feet on the ground. Emotions will certainly be present but kept within respectable boundaries!
A Sound performance may err on the side of technical security at the expense of spontaneity. The performer will have worked hard to achieve clear pedalling, good dynamics and cantabile melodies. There will be some ebb and flow to the tempo, following the composer’s markings and perhaps taking some liberties which approach a rubato style of playing. This will however be romantic rather than subversive, with the overall impression one of safety and an unwillingness to expose raw emotions.