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The Hardest Piano Music Ever: Debussy Edition

In today’s edition of “The Hardest Piano Music Ever”, we’re going to take a look at Claude Debussy.

Three of Debussy’s pieces make the “hardest ever” ranking, classified as a Henle Level 9 (the highest level there is). This is interesting to me, since Debussy’s music in general is for advanced players (he has virtually nothing for beginner and intermediate players), so naturally I assumed he’d have plenty of level 9 pieces. Not so.

That said, his “12 Etudes” collection is all at a level 8-9, and most of his compositions are level 6 or up – still quite difficult.

We’re going to talk about these three pieces in a little more detail today and listen to some musical examples. Use this as a springboard into Debussy’s music, or put them on your dream “one day to play” list!

Douze Etudes: Pour les degrés chromatiques

Debussy’s Twelve Etudes were written toward the end of his life, in the summer of 1915 during World War I, where he lived with his family in a country house. It was a period of immense productivity for him. Of the etudes, he said,

“I confess that I am pleased to have created a work which – false vanity aside – will occupy a special niche. In point of technique these Études will usefully prepare pianists for a better understanding of the fact that the portals of music can only be opened with formidable hands.”

The studies were divided into two books, and dedicated to the memory of Frederic Chopin. Each study focuses on building a particular technique (thirds, octaves, chromatics, and so on).

All twelve of Debussy’s etudes are at an ABRSM LRSM/RCM ARCT level. There are two etudes that stand out as particularly difficult: the seventh and eleventh etudes. We’ll start by talking about the 7th etude, Pour le degres chromatiques (for chromatic degrees).

This etude features the feather-light and extremely fast playing of chromatic scale passages. It’s neither tonal or atonal, and it’s not modal either. The left hand carries the theme.

Vladimir Jankelevitch said, “Does not the chromaticism of this seventh study, in its own way, seem to thank the rain in the morning?”

Audio notes:

Audio file

Performer credits: Walter Gieseking

Copyright: public domain

Douze Etudes: Pour les arpèges composes

Dubbed “For chords” or “Composite arpeggios”, this final study acts like the final part of a concerto, with its rhythmic vitality and vast dynamic register, according to Élie Robert Schmitz.

Harry Halbreich hears in this study “an assertion of almost aggressive power”. Guy Sacre also mentions that this piece is unusual for Debussy, “whose music begins, with Stravinsky or Prokofiev… the impressionistic vagueness is therefore far away.”

Audio notes

Audio file

Performer credits: Kimiko Ishizaka

Copyright: Public Domain

Préludes, Deuxième livre: Feux d’artifice

The other collection of Debussy’s with a very difficult piece is his second set of Preludes. He wrote his first set in 1910, and this set came along in 1913, two years prior to the etudes mentioned above.

The last in the set, Feux d’artifice (“fireworks”), is one of the most difficult pieces of piano music ever. As Henle says, this piece is “fireworks of pianistic bravura in the true sense of the word”.

According to Joseph DuBose, it:

“depicts a brilliant and spectacular fireworks display over Paris, and captures in tones the many furious streaks of rockets and their colorful explosions in the night sky. Sweeping runs, outlining two major thirds a semitone apart, open the prelude, perhaps depicting the anticipation of the audience, while isolated tones, like little points of light, sound in the upper register of the piano. The texture of the piece grows ever thicker and more complex and colors abound as the harmonies, figurations and dynamics change to give representation to the wondrous display and patterns of colored light. At its close, the visual display begins to slowly fade away. Over a tremolo in the bass a brief quote of La Marseillaise is heard before the last flashes of color.”

Audio notes

Audio file

Performer credits: Den Pisarevsky

Copyright: CC 3.0

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