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A "Mighty Handful" of French Pianist-Composers, Their World, Their Pianos, Piano Music, and Playing Styles - Part III

June 15, 2012 - most recently updated January 4, 2018, Easthampton, MA:

General traits of each composer’s style, similarities and differences among them

In the face of the impossibility of discussing each individual work for piano of these five pianist-composers and still keep this piece at a length and level suitable for the general reader, and although we are dealing with a descending lineage, and also because the music of Ravel and Debussy is the most familiar to most readers, we will look at the general nature and characteristics of their solo piano music in reverse chronological order to the extent possible. Some of their music incorporates advances of or refers back to that of the earlier ones: the developments of their predecessors often made their advances possible; Chabrier’s and Fauré’s innovations no longer seem so revolutionary or unusual because of what their successors did with them to move music for the instrument into the modern era, but they represented major breaks with what had had been until then acceptable. Although Debussy was the most revolutionary of the five, in fact Ravel laid the groundwork for his sound painting even though he was the younger, so strict chronology based on dates of birth does not work. Of the five, Ravel’s output, at some 14 works published during his lifetime (some with multiple sections) was the smallest, perhaps the result of his own admitted indolence and general slowness to find inspiration and to write, and his innate perfectionism nurtured by Fauré’s own practice and pedagogy, but also due to the relative brevity of his compositional career, since he was unable to compose for the last four or five years of his life (His last work, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, for voice and piano, was published in 1932; his illness became dominant in mid-1933.); he was consequently neither the prolific prodigy that was Saint-Saëns nor the disciplined steady creator that was Fauré. Debussy got a relatively late start (28 when he wrote his earliest pieces vs. Ravel’s 15), but was a bit more driven and composed to nearly the very end of his life, so out-produced Ravel in spite of his own premature demise to cancer early in 1918, the year following the last of Ravel’s piano works, Le Tombeau de Couperin, coincidentally the year of his own last one, the recently discovered Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. He, too, sought for a specific sound effect, so did not simply dash things off. Most of his solo piano works were concentrated in the years 1902-12, after nearly a decade of not writing for his instrument following the earlier ones written mostly 1888-94. Both Fauré and Saint-Saëns composed piano works as late as 1921, the year of the latter’s death. As noted earlier, Chabrier’s compositional career extended only from 1880 to his death in 1894; the bulk of his published piano music was written in the decade 1881-91, and he appears to have written the pieces with greater ease than all but Saint-Saëns.

Another reason for this reverse chronological approach is to dispel the misconception of Ravel’s imitation of Debussy, misconception that was already prevalent during Ravel’s lifetime. To wit: in his tribute essay in his Maurice Ravel par quelques-uns de ses familiers (Paris, Éditions du Tambourinaire, 1939, pp. 10-11): Émile Vuillermoz says: "Debussy est l’homme des poétiques enchantements, Ravel, celui des infaillibles sortileges" [“Debussy is the man of poetic enchantments; Ravel that of unfailing magic spells.”] (p. 11), which in fact does not apply to the bulk of Ravel’s works that focus on form, creativity in tonality, and difficulty of execution - the Toccata of Le Tombeau de Couperin is a veritable whirlwind of notes in a Baroque form, for example. The journalist and poet Léon-Paul Fargue writes in his piece in the same work: "Un soir, Maurice Ravel nous fit entendre en première audition, dans un silence tendu comme un complot, la Pavane pour une infante défunte et les Jeux d’eau. L’ironie, la couleur et la nouveauté de ces morceaux furent une revelation pour nous tous qui trempions corps et âme dans l’ 'impressionisme' de Claude Debussy. Ravel, du permier coup, d’une phrase de fleuret, se plaçait comme un indépendant de première volée, un grand seigneur de la conception personnelle, isolée et secrete." ["One evening, Maurice Ravel played for us in first hearing, in a silence as still as if we were plotting, the Pavane […, 1899] and Jeux d’eau [1901]. The irony, the color and the novelty of these pieces were a revelation for all of us who were dipping body and soul into Claude Debussy’s “impressionism.” Ravel, immediately, in a flourish, established himself as an independent in first flight, a great master of individual conception, isolated and secretive."] (Vuillermoz, op. cit., pp. 155-56.). This refers to a private advance performance at the home of painter Paul Sordes for friends that included Vuillermoz, composers Florent Schmitt, Maurice Delage, and Désiré-Émile Ingelbrecht, poet Tristan Klingsor, and critic Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi; the works were performed by Ricardo Viñes, not by Ravel, and the public première, also played by him, occurred on 5 April 1902 at an S.N.M. concert in the Salle Playel. This misconception was fueled by the false assertions of the Habanera incident, and seems to have persisted even amongst Ravel’s closest acquaintances, who should have known better, beyond his death and to this day.

These two works are not at all like each other, of course, the former a Baroque style dance rhythm, and the latter a more virtuosic and image-driven evocation. Interestingly, the Pavane pour une infante défunte, perhaps the most famous piece of all Ravel’s works which he also orchestrated, became for Ravel, much like the Prelude in c# for Rachmaninoff, the work he could not escape, so came to loathe because it was too often played like a funeral dirge (He once quipped: “It’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess!” Comparative timings [see Appendix B]: Ravel himself, Welte Mignon piano roll, 1923: 5:05; François: 5:54; Hewitt: 7:04; Perlemuter: 5:12; Pludermacher: 6:30; Thibaudet: 6:07; Werner Haas, Philips 438354-2, 1965, 6:13). The inspiration for Jeux d’eau, work dedicated to Fauré, as was his string quartet, was Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (Années de pèlerinage, 3e année, Italie, S. 163, 1877) and his Au bord d’une source, so it is not a painting in music of a specific fountain [This work is perhaps also part of Debussy’s inspiration for his « Reflets dans l’eau », Images I/1; see above.]. Ravel seems often to have been inspired to surpass a musical challenge thrown down by an earlier composer, improving on that work or making one that is technically more difficult to perform. For example, he said he wrote Scarbo’(Gaspard de la nuit/3, 1908) to be more difficult to execute than Mily Balakirev’s notoriously challenging Islamey, considered at the time to be the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertoire. Fargue, while he understands the innovations of Ravel’s music, is perhaps misremembering the time when ‘Debussy’s impressionism’ actually took hold? Debussy’s first published impressionistic piano work was his Estampes (1903). Neither composer liked having the term ‘Impressionist’ applied to his music; it was still very much a derogatory term over 25 years after it was coined in 1876 using the title of an 1872 Monet painting: “Impression: Soleil levant.” Debussy referred to himself as a “Symbolist” using the name applied to the school of poetry that included Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Maeterlinck in the early years, but later objected to all categorization. They gathered at the Libriaire [= bookstore] de l’Art Indépendant in the rue de la Chausée d’Antin, one of Debussy’s hangout spots in the 1890s; its owner published some of Debussy’s songs. It must also be remembered that the Impressionist painters themselves developed their style from an objective scientific study of the effects of light on colors not unrelated to a composer’s approach to notes to create an atmosphere with sound, nor to the concept of synesthesia associating sounds with colors.

There are undeniable similarities between some individual works of the two composers, several of which bear similar titles, and numerous parallels in their output – both used modern harmonies in Baroque forms, but there is no evidence of one ever deliberately following an example set by the other, and the differences in the general trajectories of their compositional careers are more striking than their resemblances, although both were consciously seeking to move French music into the 20th century. In fact, if you glance at the titles and composition dates, those trajectories seem to have been on inverse rather than parallel paths in terms of which dominate a given period in their careers, early, middle, or late: Debussy began with works closer to Baroque forms and moved towards sound painting, while Ravel began with sound-painting works (Jeux d’eau [1901] is considered to be the first Impressionist style work ever) and evolved more towards Baroque forms. However, towards the end of his life, Debussy also increasingly abandoned pictorial representation and returned to “pure” music in the tradition of the clavecinistes, to wit: the Préludes (1910 & 1913) collective title suggests “pure” music, but the individual pieces are sound paintings whose inspiration/prompts were placed at their end rather than as their titles, but the Études (1915) were true “pure” music through and through, with no imagistic titles at all; this may have been at least in part an anti-German impulse resulting from his antipathy to the war. The similarities between their works are more the result of cross-fertilization and unconscious replication than of deliberate plagiarism, for which no concrete evidence exists.

Like our concept of the music of Debussy, Ravel’s is also all about color, imagery, texture, and timbre. Unlike Debussy’s, however, about half of it is form-based or programmatic, evoking music of earlier, pre-Romantic periods (Le Tombeau de Couperin harks back to the Baroque era, as Ravel stated, not simply to Couperin, although its Forlane derives from one by Couperin in his fourth Concert royal, which may explain Ravel’s choice of his name for the title). In an over-simplified contrast, Debussy’s is about atmosphere and spontaneity while Ravel’s is about craftsmanship and elegance, although Debussy’s is certainly very carefully crafted, but this is concealed. Arbie Orenstein characterizes the difference thus: “Whereas Debussy’s melody is often elliptical, the purity and omnipresence of melody is characteristic of Ravel’s art.” [Ravel: Man and Musician, p. 126.]. His music also has more modernist influences and harmonies and is less the obvious heir of Romanticism than Debussy’s; Ravel was acquainted with and admired Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky and their music. Debussy also knew them, and although a kindred spirit, was less influenced by their music and theories. He was, however, very close to Satie; they met weekly at Debussy’s home for 25 to 30 years, and they apparently discussed many things. Although a large number of Debussy’s works are frequently programmed and well-loved, virtually every Ravel work is part of the standard piano canon today; not one is obscure or un-played because it is deemed inferior. Ravel was also the first French composer to see all of his works recorded during his lifetime, including a few played by himself. When Ravel composed his Jeux d’eau, the only piano works Debussy had published were his Deux Arabesques and Pour le piano, neither especially Impressionistic or virtuosic, both of which words could describe Jeux d’eau, and both are dominated by dance-like forms, which Debussy increasingly abandoned in favor of free-flowing melodies, while Ravel increasingly brought those Baroque forms into the modern era with new harmonies.

Just as there are both similarities and differences in these two composers’ music, there are likewise similarities and differences in their lives and personalities. Both were their parent’s eldest child; neither ever had any formal schooling: education was not required in France until 1882; both entered the Conservatoire at a relatively young age. Both realized relatively early in their time at the Conservatoire that although they were excellent pianists, they were not good enough to have a performance career or interested in trying to, and they turned their focus to composition. Both were slow to compose their works, often formulating them over a period of several years before putting pen to score, although Debussy made plans for a large number of works and occasionally jotted down a few musical sketches more than Ravel did. Debussy thought things out in his studio and at his desk, generally while smoking, even when his inspiration came from nature; Ravel did so outdoors, while walking the streets of Paris – the inspiration for La Vallée des cloches (Miroirs/5), came from the noontime bells of Parisian churches around him, not from a country church as its title has been known to suggest to uninformed reviewers – or in the forest of Rambouillet once he moved to Montfort-L’Amaury. Both tended to be more solitary than social: although both had their circles of close acquaintances, neither developed long-lasting close friendships with a single individual - Debussy's and Satie's relationship was more collegial than a close friendship. Debussy was unable to exist without a female companion, had a continuous stream of mistresses, and married twice, finding real happiness only with his second wife, having abandoned his first in a somewhat harsh and scandalous manner, while Ravel remained a confirmed bachelor, although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that he was a homosexual as some have hypothesized.

Both liked children and wrote works for them: Debussy, Children’s Corner (1908), for his own daughter, Chouchou, although neither she nor any child would be able to perform it; Ravel wrote a duet that young piano students really can play for the children of his good friends, the Godebskis (See above.), but they were afraid to play it, so two pre-teen students of Marguerite Long premièred Ma Mère l’Oye instead at the opening concert of the S.M.I on 20 April 1910 in the Salle Gaveau. Both collected articles for children: Debussy, dolls and stuffed animals for Chouchou; Ravel, automata – his interest in such things was undoubtedly inherited from his engineer father. Only Fauré shared this interest and impetus, and his only work in this vein is Dolly, for two pianos, discussed above. Both Debussy and Ravel were relatively poor: Debussy was always in financial difficulties, and had expensive tastes which increased them; Ravel was a bit better off, had more modest tastes, and was a frugal financial manager. The publishers Auguste and Jacques Durand offered both composers the same contract with an annual retainer in exchange for right of first refusal of 12,000 francs; Debussy accepted it, but Ravel insisted it be cut in half so as not to feel pressured to produce quantity rather than quality. [The Durands also published the works of Saint-Saëns and Fauré.] None of the others were rich, but Fauré ultimately had a steady job at the Conservatoire, and Chabrier had previously held a government job, and both were frugal. Saint-Saëns had an active performance career and a frugal lifestyle, and both he and Chabrier had inherited their parents’ assets; none of the other three had this advantage.

Debussy’s music created a new language from old materials, harmonies freely moving from chord to chord, not following traditional tonic-dominant functions, sometimes unresolved. His music expresses sensations, not emotions, poetically based on sensuous pleasure, dream-like. Debussy liked to use whole-tone (6 tone) or pentatonic (5 tone) scales – Oriental music, gamelan in particular, uses primarily this scale; Ravel preferred octotonic (8-tone) scales [The standard Western octave has 12 tones.], although his first published piano piece, Sérénade grotesque, uses whole-tone chords. Debussy was drawn to music that was modal, which was common in the Middle Ages and persisted to their times in other cultures, that Chabrier and Saint-Saëns also occasionally used, and to which Fauré and Ravel were even more drawn. Ravel was also interested in the experiments of Arnold Schoenberg, although their influence appears more in Ravel’s vocal music than in the piano works, and he did not like the atonality of Schoenberg’s disciples, but Debussy was not at all interested in these novelties. Both knew and liked Satie, but neither really followed his example although Ravel said that he chose the title for his Pavane… because he liked the alliteration, not because of any hidden meaning or reference, a Satie-esque practice, and the title Sites auriculaires for his first work for two pianos was also probably a Satie-esque invention. Debussy sometimes engaged in this practice as well: his title La terrasse des audiences du clair du lune [The terrace for moonlight audiences, Préludes II/7] comes from a phrase that he found in a newspaper article reporting on the crowning of an Indian prince whose sonority appealed to him, but it inspired an evocation of a sonic image, so is pictorial and not gratuitous or simply for effect. In spite of occasional friction between them, and Ravel’s nature of remaining distant from nearly everyone, Ravel admired Debussy. Jacques de Zogheb, his good friend in Montfort-L’Amaury, said that while listening together to a recording of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), Ravel’s eyes filled with tears and he said: “It was hearing that work a long time ago that made me understand what true music was.” (Vuillermoz, op. cit., pp 174-5). Vuillermoz says, in his biography of Debussy, that Ravel declared that the Prélude… was such an exceptional work that if it were possible to have a final contact with music at his death, it was that masterpiece which he would choose to accompany his entrance into the hereafter (Émile Vuillermoz, Claude Debussy, Geneva: René Kister, 1957, p. 63.).

Debussy’s music is deceptively simple in appearance but in reality carefully crafted and often rife with sly, wry humor, and even sorts of riddles: he often quoted snippets of other music such as children’s songs, hymns, anthems, or recognizable fragments or melodic intervals of works by other composers buried or concealed within his works, often lost on non-French/Francophile listeners. The titles often have their own concealments: for example, L’isle joyeuse is spelled thus (rather than L’île) not only because that was the Old and Middle French spelling, but because it is deliberately difficult to execute and Debussy is thus connecting it with Balakirev’s Islamey. The biographical association of the work with the composer’s amorous voyage to the Isle of Jersey with his then mistress Emma Bardac is also known, and the artistic association with the 18th century Antoine Watteau painting L’Embarquement pour l’Île de Cythère is also underneath the piece. Debussy liked the works of J.M.W. Turner, who admired Watteau, and whose painting Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules that Debussy likely saw in London, includes a miniature representation of his Les plaisirs du bal [Roy Howat pointed this out in a lecture at Smith College on 10 March 2012.], thus connecting the piece with Baroque dance rhythms and the contemporary waltz mania. The titles of the Préludes were printed at the ends of the scores, not at the beginning, so that the listener would imagine something without a pre-conceived notion, with the intended image revealed only after the fact.

Fauré’s music was simultaneously conservative and discretely revolutionary. He experimented within the traditional frameworks, but did not seek novelty, as did Debussy. His earliest works date from the years of Debussy’s and Ravel’s births, and his last ones date from after these two’s last piano works. Some of the later ones rework material from the earlier ones. He employed the Romantic forms, many of those deriving from Chopin’s, although the content and the handling of it evolved – like Beethoven’s, his music has early, middle, and late periods – and took them to a different level, laying the groundwork for his successors. Also like Beethoven, he became progressively deaf after 1900, and was not able to hear many of the later works that he wrote: in a letter to his wife Marie in March 1921, he wrote. “I’ve never heard a single note of Pénélope other than in my head!” He was interested in earlier music, including ancient and medieval modes, and wove them into these Romantic forms with subtle modulations; he essentially reunited modality with tonality into a blend so that melody was inseparable from harmony. Marguerite Long says that with Fauré it is the line that counts, unlike with Debussy where it is the sound of each note (at the piano with Fauré, p. 68). He was very methodical in his composition, working carefully and often slowly on each piece over time, and very self-critical. At the Conservatoire, he was nicknamed Robespierre for his insistence as a teacher on cutting, editing, and revising, and as an administrator for eliminating programs and staff to replace them with something more modern and up-to-date. He sought perfection in each piece; his music is one of carefully crafted concentrated expression. Ravel learned this approach from him very well.

Fauré’s music does not have a wide range of styles or types as does that of many composers; he sought unity rather than variety, and any virtuosity is integral to the piece, not tacked on for display. Long divides his piano music into four types: music of water, night, fantasy, and reason (Ibid, pp. 75-76); a glance at the list of his works in Appendix C will confirm the accuracy of this. Like Chopin’s, it is much more texturally all of a piece, but it is not monotonous, the differences among the works being more subtle – think of the differences between Chopin’s individual waltzes or mazurkas, for example. Each piece respects the Classical era’s three unities: of style, rhythm, and tone, nuances of modulations and internal variations notwithstanding. He was precise and sparing in his markings, and often removed some under the assumption that pianists would do things on their own, and if the marking suggested them, the pianists would exaggerate them. He wanted his music to be ‘played straight,’ without any interpolation of the pianist’s interpretation, but it is often not technically easy to execute; he was said to have been absolutely ambidextrous. His own playing style was one of sober Classical regularity with brilliance and clarity, but total restraint; he was not virtuosic like Chabrier and occasionally Saint-Saëns. Many of the pieces contain considerable drama, but it is not blatant or overt. Fauré’s music is modest, sober, and understated, without any extraneous padding, composed for personal, private, intimate communication rather than large demonstrative concert-hall performance, sensitive, without rhetoric or Romantic violence of expression, often contemplative, reflective, and reticent, even serene, with a more tranquil and rarefied atmosphere and beauty. There is no showy display, so audiences don’t go wild over it, but it’s discretely exquisite and lovely.

Chabrier was not a musician or composer by training or profession, having never attended the Conservatoire. He did, however, unlike Debussy and Ravel, have a serious formal education and earned a law degree; he worked at the Ministère de l’Intérieur, resigning in 1880 after a trip to Munich where he heard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, work that Debussy also saw at Bayreuth in 1889 (having seen Die Meistersinger and Parsifal there in 1888), when Chabrier was again part of a group that made that trip, which resulted in his Souvenir de Munich for piano four hands using themes from that opera. As a result, he was regarded by most of the composers and musicians who had gone through the traditional training as a talented amateur until the huge success of his España in 1883, followed by some others. Because he was not part of the establishment, he was uninhibited by its constraints, and composed in an instinctive, intuitive, almost spontaneous and frequently exuberant, but simultaneously intellectual manner. However, the younger three of these composers, as well as Erik Satie, who never aligned himself with any group, always regarded Chabrier as the most important forerunner of the moderns because of his innovations in the materials he used in his works, his harmonies, and his unconventional chords, especially ninths. They said so in words, and in works of their own that used elements of his or were inspired by them, in echoes and in respectful imitations. His Menuet pompeux (Pièces pittoresques/ 9) inspired Ravel’s Menuet antique; he orchestrated it in 1918. His Idylle (Pièces pittoresques/ 6) uses a staccato accompaniment like Ravel’s in his Pavane…, for example. Poulenc called the Pièces pittoresques as important a milestone in French piano music as Debussy’s Préludes (I, 1910 and II, 1913). Chabrier’s Bourée fantasque, one of the first works to treat the piano almost like an orchestra, contains innovations in technique that foreshadow Ravel’s in his Gaspard de la nuit and Debussy’s in his Études.  Other composers as diverse as Manuel de Falla, and Constant Lambert, Jean Françaix and Gustav Mahler declared Chabrier’s music to be the beginning of the modern era. He was able to write in this way precisely because his training and career were entirely outside the establishment, and therefore he could and did write however he wanted to. His relatively small output thus had an enormous impact.

Saint-Saëns’ music was the most conservative of the five, and also the closest to the Austro-German tradition although never really a part of or heir to it. He used more of that tradition’s standard forms, but always adapted them to his own compositional theory and style; for example, standard four-movement ones often merged the first pair of movements into a single one and the final pair likewise, and he was still ultimately inspired by French Classicism. Although Saint-Saëns was considered old-fashioned in later life, and actively resisted Modernism, he explored many new forms and reinvigorated some older ones. Saint-Saëns was as prodigious a composer as a pianist; unlike Fauré, he dashed things off and did not feel the need to work them over extensively. Also, unlike the music of Fauré and Debussy, and in spite of his notoriously rigid, stiff playing style, there are several overtly virtuosic pieces and demonstrative moments; his music is less restrained, but elegance is still generally an important trait, so it lies between Liszt and Ravel. His music is often mis-categorized as ‘salon’ music, although nearly none of it was composed specifically for that setting, because much of it is indeed lighter in the sense that it is less emotionally “profound” than most Austro-German Romantic works, but that was his goal, and that does not make it less worthy or easier to perform. To dispel the notion that the music performed in the salons was inherently light or frivolous in character, one need only know that the composer whose music was statistically the most frequently performed in the Parisian salons, of aristocrats, artists, or upper middle class hostesses alike, to the extent that such information is available (See above about the documentation of salon activities.), was Frédéric Chopin, which no one would categorize as light or frivolous ‘salon’ music! High up on the list of the top ten, were Fauré, Massenet, and Saint-Saëns (Cécile Tardif, Les salons de musique à Paris sous la Troisième République [1870-1914], Montréal: Université de Montréal, M.A. thesis, 1994, p. 46 & Table V, pp. xx-xxi.).

Some of Saint-Saëns’ works, such as several of his Valses, the canariote, gaie, langoureuse, mignonne, and nonchalante, are gems, and the Allegro appassionato, Op. 70, and Caprice sur les airs de ballet d’Alceste de Gluck are excellently crafted. His Souvenir d’Italie, Op. 80 (1887), brings to mind some numbers in Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, 3e année (S. 163), where Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (1877) that inspired Ravel’s Jeux d’eau (1901) and Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau is found; no one would categorize those works as light or frivolous. The Souvenir d’Ismaïlia, Op. 100 (1895), is a charming early bit of exoticism from Northern Africa, a decade ahead of Debussy’s attempts at suggesting Javanese gamelan in his Pagodes, and may actually use a native melody. He also wrote two sets of six Études, Opp. 52 (1877) and 111 (1899), that are fine and challenging, especially the latter’s concluding Toccata d’après le 5e concerto, both of which sets are also organized somewhat like Baroque suites. When Ravel was asked to write the concerto for left hand alone, he began searching the existing repertoire and found that the most important prior work was Saint-Saëns’ Six Études pour la main gauche, Op. 135 (1912), also like a Baroque suite, its ‘movements’ being Prélude, Alla fuga, Moto perpetuo, Bourée, Élégie, and Gigue. Both the Album, Op. 72, six movements (1884), and the Suite, Op. 90, four movements (1891), are also constructed like works of the clavecinistes, although some of the titles of the movements of the former resemble those of Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques (1881).

One could conduct a similar study and examination and write a similar piece about the other works by these five composers, operas, choral works, mélodies, orchestral and chamber music, by genre. Many of their works in some of these genres are better known and more frequently performed here, so the need for such a piece is less great, but it would be nonetheless interesting. One would find the same steady progression from Romanticism to Modernism, the same desire to remain essentially within the French tradition deriving from the Baroque ancestors of these forms, the same resistance to adoption or following of Austro-German forms and traditions, and the same aesthetic background, principles, and goals. Some of the composers would be found to be more advanced in one or another of these genres than the others at a given point in time in the evolution. The individual works would reflect their composer’s personal conception and style, of course, and some of them, like Ravel who never wrote a full-length opera, did not write in all of the genres. Salons played an entirely different role for these genres, however, since, other than in mélodies or some chamber works, some instances of which were mentioned in passing here because the piano is a partner, neither the composers nor the hostesses were performing. There would, however, be fewer issues of performance style, and no issue of the instruments for which the works were composed or their makers, since brass, string, and wind instruments had already pretty much evolved to their modern form by the mid-19th century, so no Appendix A would be required, and Appendix B would take a different form. Appendix C would be much shorter for some of the genres, but perhaps longer for mélodies. Appendixes E and F would remain unchanged, and G would require some substitutions for books dealing with the specific genre. One might also conduct a similar examination of the solo piano works of other French composers, predecessors, contemporaries, and heirs/successors, from the same perspective, although information would likely be far more difficult to obtain, especially on this side of the Atlantic, since even in France, their music is less well known today and their lives and works have been less the subject of scholarly research activity.

Appendix A

Composers’ pianos

In the US, Steinway is the ‘go-to’ piano, as a pianist recently described it in spoken comments during a recital that included some Debussy and Ravel; it is ubiquitous here, and has become prominent in Europe, too, since WW II, although the products of the company’s Hamburg factory have a sound somewhat different from those of its NYC factory. So, we must banish from our minds the concept that the Steinway model has imposed on our perception of the instrument and music written for it to fully appreciate the results these composers sought and obtained from theirs. It is possible that four of the five never heard or played a Steinway. It is certain that none of them ever owned one and only Saint-Saëns is known to have played one in a public performance. It is possible that a Steinway was used by the piano-roll recording companies for whom a few of them made a small number of recordings (see below). I present the remaining instruments and information about what these pianist-composers owned and played in reverse chronological order because the earlier ones have left fewer traces.

Ravel: Érard. Ravel spent 14 years at the Conservatoire de Paris, where Érards were then the official instrument. He played mostly Érards, and owned one (perhaps more than one over his lifetime? There are two photos of him seated at a piano in two different residences, but it appears to be the same instrument.) built in 1908, serial number 96117, probably acquired in 1910, 215 cm long (about 7 feet); it is still present in his home in Montfort-L’Amaury, the small village southwest of Paris where he spent his last 16 years, that is now the Musée Ravel. It, like nearly all Érards, has a wooden frame with a metal plate to attach the strings and three metal tension bars mounted above, is parallel strung, with triple stringing in the upper registers, double stringing in the upper bass notes and single overspun (coil-wrapped) stringing in the lowest octave, and has 85 keys (7.5 octaves). It replaced an upright of unknown make, but perhaps an Érard, that others mention having seen in his home (He was still living with his parents then.) at least until 1910. He may have played Steinways – Mason & Hamlin was the official piano for the few recitals that he gave – a few times on his 4-month mostly conducting 1928 tour of the US where Érards were essentially unknown then, but we don’t know what he thought of either make. He made piano rolls for the Welte Mignon Company, so probably played a Steinway B for those [see Appendix B, below].

Debussy: Several makes, although he never toured as a pianist.

1) Pleyel: he learned to play on an old Pleyel dating from the period when the company’s founder Ignace Pleyel was in charge when he was living with his aunt Clémentine in Cannes and he had a Pleyel upright given to him by the firm in his last home, an 18-room rented house with garden at 80 avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now avenue Foch), which was apparently the 3rd or 4th in a line of instruments, all uprights, lent him by the company, beginning certainly as early as 1892 when he had one in his room in the rue de Londres which may have either accompanied him to his later apartments, first at 10 rue Gustave Doré and then at 52 rue Cardinet, or been reclaimed and replaced by newer models.

2) Érard: at the Conservatoire, where he spent 12 years from age 10 to age 22, and he is known to have played Érards when he performed in the Salle Érard in his late years.

3) Bechstein: Arbie Orenstein says he preferred its thicker, deep sonority [Ravel: Man and Musician, p. 126.] and he had a Bechstein upright in his last home; he once wrote in a letter to the firm: “One should only write piano music for the Bechstein” (but an e-mail query to the firm for confirmation and date of this quote remains unanswered); in Cassard’s notes in the booklet accompanying his recordings [See Appendix B, below.], he says that the letter is framed and hangs in Bechstein Hall in Berlin, but I have not come across this information or more details elsewhere. It seems likely that it was written in the 1890s and may not be unrelated to a request for a loaner instrument, knowing that similar requests were made to the Pleyel firm on more than one occasion. He may have encountered Bechsteins during the three summers of 1880-82, when he traveled with Madame Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky’s benefactress,) as her family pianist when they visited Venice, Florence, Vienna, and Moscow, or perhaps during his two trips to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889.

4) Blüthner: he first encountered this make during an amorous holiday trip to the Isle of Jersey with Emma (née Moyse) Bardac in 1904; he purchased a 1904 small grand model (6’, 3”), serial number 65614, in 1905 in Eastbourne, UK, during a visit there, and had it shipped home to Paris, so wrote the bulk of his later piano music for and on it. It remained in his home until his death and is still extant in the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Limousin (Limoges area, to which it was moved during WW II by Raoul Bardac, who inherited it upon Debussy's death). It has a cast iron frame and is cross-strung with the firm’s patented Aliquot system of sympathetic strings mounted above those of the upper registers that vibrate when those below them are struck by the hammers, giving an added depth and resonance, and has 88 keys. Thus, in spite of the quote on the Bechstein website, we know that the Blüthner sound, especially with the Aliquot system, is the one he preferred and was writing for after 1905. This is apparently the only piano that he ever actually owned, the others are all are known to have been “borrowed,” having been lent to him by their firms. He had several pianos in his final residence, all uprights except the Blüthner.

5) Gaveau: he performed several recitals in later years in the Salle Gaveau, so played Gaveau instruments there.

A piano in the Villa Medicis in Rome said to have been “Debussy’s piano” when he was there 1885-’87 as the winner of the Prix de Rome may not in fact be that instrument; it is a Pleyel grand, 88 keys, probably dating from the 1910s, at least post 1905. Here is what the staff of the Villa Medicis writes about it:

"La tradition de l'Académie attribuait ce piano à Claude Debussy lors de son séjour à la Villa Médicis. Dans le programme du concert de Michel Levinas du 29 janvier 1993 il est indiqué:

"Piano Pleyel, et Pleyel, Wolff, Lyon & Cie, sorti des manufactures Pleyel, Paris, en 1857, numéroté 25145, repris après 1887 par la manufacture Pleyel, Wolff, Lyon & Cie, appartenant à l'Académie de France à Rome, confié à Claude Debussy durant son séjour à la Villa Médicis (1885-87) et restauré par le facteur Claudio Tuzzi (Clavicembali & Temparamenti), Rome, novembre 1992-janvier 1993)."

Michel Froussard, dans son rapport rendu à la Direction de la Musique et de la Danse, en 2001, souligne l’erreur d'attribution, estimant qu’il est impossible de dater l’instrument d'avant 1905 et donc qu'il puisse avoir été le piano de Debussy durant son séjour à la Villa Médicis entre janvier 1885 et février 1887, le datant plus volontiers des années 1910 : « La morphologie de l'instrument, sa structure, ses dimensions, le rattachent sans aucun doute aux années suivant le catalogue Pleyel de 1905."

However, that serial number would correspond to the alleged production date, with instruments between numbers 2000 and 30000 having been built between 1854 and 1861 according to the company’s records.

Fauré: Érard. It was the official instrument of the Conservatoire de Paris, with which he was associated for 24 years (1896-1920), the last 15 as its head. Marguerite Long writes in at the piano with Fauré, p. 101.) that the firm gave him a new one every year, but this frequency seems unlikely. His last one, a 1914 model, serial number 104960, is still extant in the Musée de la musique in Paris, a 1984 bequest of his daughter-in-law Blanche Fauré-Fremiet. It is 187 cm (about 6’) long, has a composite frame (wooden with metal parts as above), is parallel strung (triple in the upper registers, double in the upper bass, and overspun single in the lowest octave), and has 85 keys, similar to Ravel’s only slightly smaller; it has never been restored since Fauré’s death. If you understand French, you can navigate the website and zoom in on a dozen views of the instrument to see how Érards were built. There is no detailed record of any of his earlier instruments; this one was left with his widow by the company upon his death. A photo on p. 9 of the booklet accompanying the Stott recording of his works (see Appendix B below) shows him leaning against two side-by-side pianos that appear to be Érards in what appears to be a room in a home (his?).

He may have played other makes when on tour, but there seems to be no record of specifics. Fauré played other makes in concert, but few details are known, other than that he obviously played Gaveaus in the Salle Gaveau and Pleyels in the Salle Pleyel for the S.N.M. and S.M.I. concerts held in those venues. He played in Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall in London on 9 March 1908, so played a Bechstein on that occasion. He recorded a few piano rolls in 1908 using a Grotrian-Steinweg.

Chabrier: None of his pianos have been traced or located. He is likely to have played mostly Érards and Pleyels, perhaps Gaveaus, because he did not perform in public concert within or outside of France, although he may have encountered and played various other makes during his personal travels (See above.). The caricature sketch of him at the keyboard by Édouard Detaille shows a fallboard with Pleyel written above the composer’s left arm (not its standard position); an 1885 painting by (Ignace) Henri (Jean) Fantin-Latour now in the Musée d’Orsay shows him surrounded by friends at the keyboard of what appears to be an Érard, judging from the sketchy representation of the nameplate on the fallboard, the lyre-shaped lyre, standard on the firm’s products, and the somewhat imprecise profile of the firm’s unique shape for the ends of the case that embrace the keyboard, called ‘arms,’ that are cut differently from those of any other make that I have ever seen [A photo of an 1877 Érard at the Frederick’s site shows the shape, as do the photos of its 1848 and 1893 Érards. You can also see it in Ravel's and Fauré's, in the links to theirs.], but the setting is not known (his home?).  The reports of his performances there of his España suggest that it was an Érard that he owned, because neither a Pleyel nor a Gaveau would have produced the sort of power described.


1) The piano on which he learned to play in his childhood apartment home was a miniature Zimmermann made by the father (I have not been able to discover his first name.) of Pierre, the Conservatoire colleague of Stamaty, and owned by his great aunt Charlotte Masson who had been an accomplished amateur, but had stopped playing.

2) Pleyel: he was given a Pleyel grand by his mother in 1846. This may be the only instrument that he ever owned. The family was living at 3, rue du Jardinet in the Quartier latin then, moved to 168, rue du Faubourg St. Honoré in 1858, and in 1877 back to the Quartier latin to rue Monsieur le Prince. There is no record of any other piano ever having been in his residence. In 1889, after the death of his mother on 18 December 1888, he gave all his furniture and possessions, including the Zimmermann and the grand piano, to the city of Dieppe in Normandy, near the village where his ancestors had lived, where they are now housed in the Château-Musée, and never again had a residence of his own, always renting furnished quarters. He played his first public recital at age 10 on 6 May 1846 in the Salle Pleyel, which obviously featured that maker’s instruments, and numerous others there throughout his career, including one in the summer of 1896 to celebrate his performance jubilee, and another jubilee ten years later

3) Érard: he studied at the Conservatoire, where they were the official instrument, beginning in 1848 at age 13. He played in the Salle Érard on 10 April 1860 and on 7 December 1871; he may also have played there in concerts of the S.N.M. He is also known to have requested an Érard rather than the Broadwood that was in place in St. James’s Hall in London for his first recital there on 13 July 1874; he gave other concerts there later, and perhaps the same substitution was made for those? An Érard, said then to be his favorite make (This was used as an inducement to draw him there.), was substituted for whatever make was on the stage in Edinburgh for his recital there in June 1904.

4) Gaveau: he gave his last concert in Paris in the Salle Gaveau on 6 November 1913; there is a photo taken on the occasion. He played a Gaveau then and when he had played there earlier as well.

5) Steinway: he played concerts in Steinway Hall in London in June 1880, so clearly played a Steinway on that occasion.

6) Knabe: The Baltimore, MD, firm (1839-1908) prevailed upon him to endorse its products, whose sound he liked, and he was supposed to play its concert grands in performances on a projected 1892 US tour planned to coincide with the World's Columbian Exposition, but the trip had to be cancelled for health reasons.

He came to the US in 1915 where he conducted the San Francisco Symphony. It is not known if he gave any recitals or what make of instrument he played if he did. It is also known that he, like Debussy, liked uprights.

The Welte-Mignon Company which made piano rolls used primarily Steinway Bs for its recordings, so Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel all probably played them on the few occasions when they recorded for it. The Ampico [= American Piano Company, a merger of Chickering, Knabe, and several other smaller companies, located in Rochester, NY], and Duo-Art, a division of Aeolian, had proprietary instruments. As far as I know, none of these composers who came to the US made any recordings while here.

Appendix B


1) A few recordings exist of four of these composers (Chabrier died before recording technology was available.) playing their own music, transferred to CD from piano rolls for the most part; only Ravel recorded enough pieces to fill an entire CD:

Ravel plays Ravel, Dal Segno, DSPRCD 004; 1992, 71:23 mins, on a modern piano using the original piano rolls, so the timings are accurate, but not the tones; the recording of Le Gibet (Gaspard de la nuit/3) was actually played by Robert Casadesus, supervised by Ravel.

None of these give any information about the instrument used, however, most likely because they were recorded in France where foreign instruments were not common; it is consequently likely that they were playing Érards, although Gaveaus and Pleyels are possibilities; it is also possible that those companies had Steinways because their power would have produced better results with early recording technology. German company Welte Mignon used Steinway Bs for its piano roll recordings, but also occasionally local makes when a Steinway B was not available.

2) The Frederick Collection of Historic Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, includes several Érards, Pleyels, and a Blüthner similar to Debussy’s, although concert grand size, and some pianists have recorded works by some of these composers on them, generally programs they had played in recital on the Collection’s fall and spring (generally five recitals each) historical piano concerts series. Noticeably absent, however, are Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, and Fauré, a visible confirmation of my comments at the outset about the general unawareness of their music for solo piano in this country. Readers can get a sense of the intended sound of their music by listening to them:

Debussy: Préludes, Elaine Greenfield, piano; Centaur 2693/94; 1907 Blüthner.

Le Tombeau de Debussy, Randall Love, piano; Centaur 3007; 1907 Blüthner, reviewed here.

French Piano Four-Hands with the Elegant Érard, The Transcontinental Duo: Elaine Greenfield and Janice Meyer; incl. Fauré, Dolly, Op. 56, Debussy, Petite Suite and Six Épigraphes antiques, and Ravel, Ma Mère l’Oye; Centaur 3071; 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert.

There are other private and public collections of historic instruments in Europe which own pianos of these makes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a few recordings have been made using some of them, but I am aware of only three devoted exclusively to the solo piano music of any of these five composers:

Philippe Cassard, Debussy: l’oeuvre pour piano/the piano works, Decca 476 4770, © 2012, 4 CDs recorded on an 1898 Bechstein [See Appendix A above.] concert grand serial # 52967 from an unidentified private collection. This is a re-issue of recordings made from 1989 to 1993, with two additional short works (10 minutes total) uncovered since then (« Les Soirs illuminés… » and « Pour le vêtement du blessé »), recorded in 2011 on a 2009 Steinway D; it is the sole truly complete recording of Debussy’s works for solo piano of which I am aware. It is, alas, apparently unavailable in the US; I purchased my copy in Montréal. The performances and the tonalities are magnificent.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Ravel: “Complete Piano Works,” MDG (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm) 601 1190-2, recorded in 2003 on a 1901 (year of composition of Jeux d’eau) Steinway D in Bad Arolsen, is an excellent performance on an instrument like those Ravel may have played when performing in Parisian salons (See text above), although, except for Winaretta Singer’s, those were smaller, likely Bs, but it will give you an idea of how much more melodious and warm earlier Steinways are than today’s brash, glaringly bright, booming ones that are built to fill large concert halls (MDG has several other CDs recorded on this instrument, of which I own a few, but none of the booklets reveal its factory of manufacture or its serial #, a blemish on the completeness of the company’s production details); the company’s sound quality is at the top of the game, and its booklet notes are always superb, often giving excellent analyses that are helpful to readers who are not trained musicians or composers, here a veritable brief essay by Thomas Kalbrich (that, unfortunately, the performance order does not follow, although the grouping is well-conceived); the booklet also includes (p. 25) a sketch by an unidentified artist of Ravel seated at his Érard (which shows the distinctive and unique cut of the ends of its arms/cheeks that I describe in the text above), and also includes the texts of the 3 poems that inspired “Gaspard de la Nuit,” which were printed in the score and the program of the première, with side-by-side English and German translations, the whole making this the set with the sound world closest to what Ravel would have known and conceived on his Érard, which is even more melodious and warm.

Gwendolyn Mok, The Complete Solo Piano Music of Maurice Ravel; Ravel Revealed, MS [Musicins Showcase Recordings] 1070, © 2011, performed on a c. 1868-1875 Érard (so made before Ravel was born) in the collection of San José, CA, State University, where Mok teaches. Mok was the last pupil of Vlado Perlmutter, chosen by him to pass on his knowledge of playing the composer’s music as he learned it from the composer, and is thus a Ravel scholar, with a Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook. This is the only recording of his music performed on an Érard, and revelatory of the sound world he knew. I heard her play “La Vallée des cloches” live on an 1840 Érard at the Frederick Collection as an encore to a recital of music from that period.

There may be other recordings on older instruments available in Europe but also not imported into the US.

3) Modern recordings on modern instruments, mostly unidentified: these will allow you to acquaint yourself with and experience the music with good performances even if they don’t offer the authentic sound of the instruments for/on which it was written:

Saint-Saëns: Complete piano music, Marylène Dosse, with Annie Petit in the 4-hand works; Vox CD5X 3607; 2003 transfers from LPs recorded in 1974 in 2 different studios, one clearly superior to the other, where the duet works were recorded.  Both pianists are French, so the performance style is good.

Chabrier: Complete piano music, Rena Kyriakou, with Walter Klien in the 4-hand works; Vox CDX 5108; 1994 transfers from LPs recorded in 1965. A native of Greece, studied at the Paris Conservatoire.|

Fauré: Complete piano music, Jean-Phillippe Collard, with Bruno Rigutto in the 4-hand works, Brilliant Classics 94035, 2010 transfers of EMI LPs recorded in 1973, 1980, and 1983 in the Salle Wagram in Paris; Kathryn Stott, with Martin Roscoe in the 4-hand works; Hyperion CDA66911/4, 1994 recordings made in St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, UK, with good booklet notes by Bryce Morrison.

Debussy: Complete solo piano music: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Chandos 10743(5), 2012, [5 CDs, issued individually 2007-2009], recorded on a Steinway D in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK.  This is, to my knowledge, the only set that offers virtually all the known works, including, on CD 5, the composer’s piano scores, which were the original compositional form and were used for rehearsal purposes, of 3 of his ballets: Khamma, Jeux, and La Boîte à joujoux.  The first of these was discovered in a Parisian music shop by Bavouzet in 2009; the orchestrations of it and the third were unfinished at the time of Debussy’s death, and were completed by Charles Koechlin and André Caplet respectively [See Appendix F].  Bavouzet manages to make this Steinway produce a sound that approaches in depth of resonance that of Debussy’s Blüthner with its Aliquot system strings [See Appendix A] even if it can’t match the latter’s rich sonorities [cf. the Greenfield CD above].  His readings are stunning, which no doubt explains the numerous (at least a dozen) awards the various disks received.  He presents the works in a carefully thought out order that highlights similarities, contrasts, and inter-relationships between and among them rather than simply following chronology and squeezing the small pieces into spare spaces.  Booklet notes by Roger Nichols, the pre-eminent English-language biographer of Debussy, are superb.  All track listings are given as Debussy wanted the works to be announced in printed programs, including their dedications, with the Preludes having their French tempo and interpretive indications first, the inspirations/titles below them in parentheses, for example.  All but the first CD contain personal notes from the pianist.  This is a truly complete and scholarly presentation, as definitive as CDs get.

Complete (of all solo works known at the time; 4-hand works not included) L'œuvre pour piano: Albert Ferber (1911-1987), EMI 50099 083380 2 (4 CDs), 2011 remasterings of recordings made 6/1953-1/1956 on a 1920s Steinway (Hamburg or NY; not specified) in the Salle Adyar for the Ducretet-Thompson Company, fine booklet notes by Jean-Charles Hoffelé only in French, only made available in the USA 8/2017 through Arkiv Music, authentic, sensitive, superb playing by this Swiss-born pianist, Germany and Paris-trained (pupil of Walter Gieseking and Marguerite Long), residing in London after 1939. He obtains sonorities unlike any I have ever heard with the music of Debussy from a Steinway, with appropriate depth and ring, likely very close to what Debussy obtained from his Blüthner, and using traditional French playing techniques then no longer in fashion ( « virtuosité élégante », i.e., without demonstrative display, in the notes.), and precise pedaling, also likely closer to what Debussy intended. The original tapes found in archives were in excellent condition and the transfers are superb; this makes for enlightening and enthralling listening. Rachamninoff also liked Ferber's playing, as did Fauré, and he was also known for his intepretations of the latter's music. [added 9/2017]

For part 4 of this 5-part article, click here.