An Interpretative Viewpoint


A brief peroration on performance




Without doubt the Debussy Sonata is one of the great masterpieces of the cellist's repertoire. In its relatively short time span it creates a world of its own; a jewel of concision and expression. Like the late sonatas of Beethoven, it seems to distil a lifetime of experience into a mere twelve minutes, and to explore an emotional range far in excess of many more substantial works. If brevity is the soul of wit, it is also, in the case of the Debussy Sonata, the soul of an incredibly fertile musical expression.


It is supremely one of those works where the player is called upon to exercise both an extremely able and flexible technique, and a very lively imagination for both sound and characterisation. But in the kind of illumination he or she can bring to the interpretation and in the necessity of seeking to get under the composer's skin, the player is presented with a double challenge. If the former is not sufficiently guided by the latter, the music can drown under an embarras de richèsse.


Lest the task of analysis should start to assume too important a function, in  any discussion of the interpretation of Debussy's music there is always a ghostly hand tapping one on the shoulder, if not actually rapping one over the knuckles, in the persona of Monsieur Croche, the alter ego musical critic in Debussy: legions of musicologists are given short shrift with a well-aimed blow on the chin ; “ commentators, adaptors, meddlers.... that countless horde that exists only for the purpose of wrapping unfortunate masterpieces in a fog of words and high-sounding epithets. ”  and  “ Pompous well-informed persons will declare that such and such a conductor has the secret of the true tempo; anyhow it makes an excellent subject of conversation.”


One therefore approaches the task with some circumspection, if not actually misgiving ! On the other hand, the letter to Caplet already quoted concerning the run-through of the Sonata, does tend to indicate a certain freedom of approach to the execution of his music. A further insight into Debussy's views comes in his attitude to the fingering of his piano Études, which he believed should be left to the interpreter - “ Our old masters - I mean our own admirable clavecinists - never marked the fingering; no doubt because they had confidence in the ingenuity of their contemporaries. It would be unseemly to mistrust the skill of our modern virtuosi. To sum up : the absence of fingering provides excellent practice...”


But while in matters of technical execution Debussy acknowledges the role of the individual interpreter, it seems to me that, above all, in matters of musical  interpretation, his intentions are very clear in the meticulous way that he uses marks for articulation, tempo changes and dynamics. So many of the clues are there on the page that one has only to look and carry out those intentions; and the detail with which the manuscript is adorned, is evidence in plenty that Debussy had had enough experience of the Monsieur Rosoors of this world to recognise the necessity for making his instructions as explicit as possible. Debussy saw waywardness as a kind of musical self-aggrandisement.


Some more light on the way in which Debussy's instructions to performers had been honed and refined, is cast by comparing his other pieces for cello. The only other extant works for cello solo are:


             1  Intermezzo, the manuscript of which bears the title “ Suite pour violoncelle et orchestra. 4.Intermezzo", ( which tantalizingly suggests either a lost or incomplete orchestral work ), though the extant manuscript is for cello and piano. This dates from 1882 and was inspired by a passage from Heine.  A 28 page orchestral score of the Intermezzo, originally in the  collection of R. Legouix, is  thought to exist, but its location is unknown. The version for Cello and Piano, four pages in length, entirely in Debussy's hand, is in the collection of Gregor Piatigorsky's daughter. The Library of Congress, Washington DC, holds a microfilm copy, which can be consulted in situ.


            2 " Nocturne and Scherzo " ( by A. [ Achille ] De Bussy - his original name ), the Ms of which, in the BN, consists of only one piece, presumably the Scherzo.   ( Example 4 ) 




First Page of the Scherzo



Comparing the manuscript of the Scherzo with the Sonata, one sees just how much Debussy's skill in writing for the cello developed during his lifetime. The Scherzo is an unpretentious salon piece,  written with obvious fluency, and the minimum amount of fuss. But it also has extraordinarily few  expression or dynamic marks to guide the performer, quite unlike the later work.


In contemplating the form of the Sonata, some people have felt that it displays a too cerebral kind of composition, for some too spare and angular in its lightning changes of mood and texture; yet these are so much part and parcel of the way in which the piece evolves from the opening material, that there is an extraordinary cohesion in the midst of this teeming flow of fast-changing emotions. The apparent contradictions in the music are integrated into a tapestry, which indeed tells a story, however  we care to interpret that. If  we take the Pierrot analogy, it is as though the essential nature of Pierrot - conflict, gives him his creative energy, and out of that frisson of conflict grows his world of yearning, laughter, tears and frustration.


Debussy's own  description of the cello sonata is illuminating - “ It's not for me to judge its excellence but I like its proportions and its almost classical form, in the good sense of the word. ”  The underlying unity of the piece reveals itself in certain musical fingerprints, such as the turn or mordent which appears in the piano part in Bar 1. This becomes a leitmotif which crops up in various forms of augmentation and diminution throughout the piece, as a cellular idea which lends itself to different kinds of treatment and different moods. 


The opening bars of piano and cello seem to combine several elements - firstly a  feeling of improvisation, incorporating ornaments or arabesques  which could  almost come from an eighteenth century piece for clavecin, and secondly a feeling of flamenco, or Moorish folk music.  We know from Debussy's own writing how much he loved Spanish music -“ the rugged beauty of the old Moorish cantilenas remained unforgettable ”, and the term arabesque  ( lit. in Moorish style, firstly applied to foliar and curlicued  ornamentation in painting and architecture after the Moorish occupation of Spain ) was deeply significant for Debussy, for whom “ the musical arabesque, or rather that principle of ornamentation which is the basis of every mode of art ”  formed a touchstone for all the great composers from Palestrina onwards.   “ Bach, in taking over the arabesque, made it more supple, more fluid, and in spite of the severe discipline which this great Master imposed on Beauty, he was able to move freely with that ever changing, ever-new fantasy which still surprises us to this day. ”


Inherent in these dissimilar though not unrelated elements is a strongly modal feeling in the harmony, which also harks back to a still earlier age of music, such as that of the troubadour or trouvère songs of the 13th century. ( There is also kinship here with Pierrot in the idolatry of the troubadour love poems, the aspiration, despair of love, and love-sickness. )


The cello entry juxtaposes declamation with a melismatic cadenza, in which the music, having begun with a sudden burst of energy, dissolves quickly into a neurasthenic limbo. With the simplest means, Debussy has created a world  of sensation in the first  seven bars, and from the forte  of the cello entry to the piano  of the Cédez  ( Bar 6 ) and its following diminuendo, has traversed a continent of sound worlds, from extrovert to introvert, from rhetoric to meditation.


Figure 1 introduces a surging figure with sudden crescendi, which are used again at various other points in the piece, usually when the emotional temperature is rising, but here the effect is rather of being trapped in a stasis, which revolves round itself. The ensuing Animando builds tension though escalation of speed and dynamic till it explodes into a fully fledged restatement of the turn motive from the opening bars over striding octaves in the piano. The following Rubato is one of those marvellously atmospheric moments, when through a simple mixture of fifths and fourths, and twos against threes, with the instruction lusingando, Debussy creates a shimmering and evanescent torpor, out of which comes the flickering scurrying of the cello cadenza, like a moth in the flame of a candle.


A return to the au Movement  of the opening, which is this time resolved with a seraphic D major harmony, brings this movement to a  tranquil resolution.


The Sérénade, which starts somewhat hesitantly in little jerky movements   ( an echo of “Minstrels ”, -  appropriately enough !) calls for many sudden changes of colour and atmosphere -    “ Fantasque et leger ”, which again require a technique attuned to great nuance in the sound and articulation. The quirkiness of this movement sometimes suggests  the puppet-like jerky animation of wooden dolls, and rarely flowers into full-blooded song such as one might expect in a serenade; but at the same time the speed with which the mood changes suggests emotional turbulence and intensity alongside moments of tenderness and pathos ( such as the Presque lent  after Fig 5 ). But whereas the Serenade of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire suggests a much more neurasthenic and decadent psychological exploration, Debussy's Sérénade is light, petulant and altogether more innocent. Tears fall wistfully, but the heart is on the sleeve for all to see.


The Presque lent  is occasionally heard played with artificial harmonics, and there seems to be some confusion over the Flautendo  ( Debussy's spelling ) marking. Flautando means, literally, flute-like; the French word flageolet, on the other hand  has a double meaning, either as a kind of flute or as a string harmonic, which may be why the confusion has arisen, but flautando  by itself does not indicate harmonics, rather just a kind of colour on naturale  notes.


The Finale kicks off, literally, with the cello part marked pizz arraché, which is a term peculiar to Debussy, but can be interpretated as the same thing as a “ Bartok ” pizzicato - arraché meaning pulled up, or out, thus causing the string to slap back on the fingerboard ( an arrache-clou is a nail drawer ! ). The exuberance of the last movement  ( Léger et nerveux )  always benefits from a strongly rhythmical basis, and the metronome mark of 92 per crochet is a good indication that the Animé sections are not to be played too  fast. It seems to me that the piano part offers the clue to the regularity of the metre in this movement, and that the strutting bass gives the foundation to the more voluble melodic line.


The movement alternates the confident extrovert music of the Animé sections with slower, more ruminative, sections which reach their most poignant in the Lento “ con morbidezza ”.   This music cleverly takes the turn after Fig 2 in the first movement, and by inverting it imbues it with  pathos, suggesting hurt and self-pity.


But as quickly as it came, it goes;  the music picks itself up, brushes itself down, and in a slightly manic way recapitulates, banishing all the doubts of the downward drooping turn by reinstating it in its original shape, this time finishing the piece on an aggressive, if somewhat abrupt, note. The play is ended, the tears are wiped away, and ........ to hell with all the world!


- - -


I have deliberately avoided too much analysis in writing about the Debussy Sonata, because it seems so contrary to the way in which Debussy composed, and inappropriate considering his  feelings about other people analysing his  music. [1] If  Pierrot is our hero, then there is no doubt as to his final mood, but lest it seem that the melancholy clown has also occupied too much centre stage in this peroration, Debussy himself should have the last word:


“ Let us maintain that the beauty of art must always remain mysterious; that is to say, that it is impossible to explain exactly how it is created. Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, for of all the arts it is the most susceptible to magic.


When the god Pan put together the seven pipes of the syrinx, he imitated at first only the long melancholy note of the frog, voicing its complaint to the moon. Later he entered into competition with the birds.”


Inescapably, it seems, for Debussy the image of the moon as a long-suffering silent witness, in this case to the primeval moaning of the frog, was a potent and recurring symbol.


That the  frog became a prince or  a Pierrot  matters not to the moon.......






Extracts from the manuscripts are published by kind permission of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Rychenberg Foundation, Stadtbibliothek Wintherthur. Thanks also to Richard Langham-Smith and Roy Howat for useful advice.



©  Moray Welsh Nov 1991

Article originally published in The Strad Magazine



[1] Having played the Sonata for many years, I find one of the most bewildering descriptions of it comes in the words of Ernest Newman, who described it as " consisting mostly of a fog opening now and then and giving us a momentary glimpse of ravishingly beautiful country. "  Looking at the exquisite clarity of the BN manuscript, and taking into consideration the leanness of the writing, fog certainly doesnt come to mind!








The Story of Pierrot                                                           S R Littlewood

                                                                                                   Herbert & Daniel  1911


The Commedia dell'arte                                                     Kenneth and Laura Richards

                                                                                                   Shakespeare Head Press  1990


Studies in Contemporary Music                                          Wilfrid Mellers

                                                                                                   Dennis Dobson  1947


Debussy Letters                                                                Ed François Lesure & Roger Nichols

                                                                                                   Faber and Faber  1987


Debussy His Life and Mind                                                 Edward Lockspeiser

Two Vols                                                                                 Cambridge University Press  1962


Debussy - Master Musicians                                               Edward Lockspeiser

                                                                                                   Dent  1963


The Theories of Claude Debussy                                         Leon Vallas

                                                                                                   Oxford University Press  1929


Debussy His Life and Works                                               Leon Vallas

                                                                                                   Dover Publications  1973


Monsieur Croche the                                                           Dover  1962

Dilettante Hater                                                                    


C Debussy  A Guide to Research                                        James Briscoe




Manuscript Sources


1                 Manuscript copy of the Cello Sonata in Debussy's handwriting with annotions in pencil by the                                publishers.  In the same bound volume there are also Debussy's manuscripts of the Sonata for Flute                      Viola and Harp, and the Violin Sonata, plus the first proof of the Violin Sonata.       

                   Bibliothèque Nationale   Paris


2                Manuscript copy

                  Collection of Dr Werner Reinhart

                  Rychenberg Foundation   Stadtbibliothek  Winterthur







Following the publication of this article in The Strad Magazine in April / June 1992, two letters were received by the magazine which throw more light on two points raised in the articles. Rather than change the original I have included the letters in Footnotes, which should be read in conjunction with the points discussed.