Memorising Debussy

I recently learnt Debussy’s wonderful Hommage à Rameau, in Images Book 1 Number 2, as part of my LTCL programme. It is a yearningly nostalgic piece written in 1904-5 which draws its inspiration from French baroque composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux, which was first performed in 1737. Here’s a recording of me playing it (from memory):

I found the piece particularly interesting from a memorising perspective, as unlike most other pieces (but in common with other Debussy I’ve played), I don’t really understand it! On the surface, the architecture is easy enough to understand. The piece is mostly in G# minor, and is not far off having an ternary (ABA) structure. It begins with an abstract melody doubled in both hands which is echoed throughout the piece, and everything appears to grow organically from this initial fragment. Debussy creates the atmosphere of the past by using aeolian, dorian and phrygian modes, but develops the material using parallel and bitonal harmonies as well as whole tone scales. He also alludes to an 18th century dance form in triple metre (a saraband), where the second and third beats are often tied, giving the piece a distinctive rhythm even at its slow tempo. To me the piece sounds eerily timeless – both ancient and modern.

The disconcerting aspect from a memorisation perspective is its enharmonic nature. For example: on the page, what appears to be a chord comprising E#, A#, C-double# and G# is clearly actually a Bb major 7th chord when I look down at my hands. But what’s Bb7 doing in the middle of a piece in G# minor? And that’s just the left hand – on top we have B#, C-double#, E# and G#, which is clearly an F minor chord. Most of the piece is like this. These rich sonorities are fabulous, but are a surprise when immersed in the murky underworld of G#minor. The shifting harmonic landscape that of apparently unrelated keys give the piece an other-worldly character, but makes it cognitively very hard to memorise. On top of that, there are lots of big chords and multi-octave jumps around the keyboard, which makes forming reliable motor memory much harder. Or at least, that’s what I thought…

I’ve played this piece probably half-a-dozen times in front of small audiences, and never had a memory lapse. Of course, there are inevitably some technical slips – I would never claim to be a note perfect performer. But when I actually play the the piece, I seem to know where to find the notes easily. Most of the piece is slow enough to allow time for reflection too, and occasionally I even think consciously about the notes and chords I’m playing, marvelling at their surprisingly natural sound. When learning the piece, I had to discard the score early on and focus on the keyboard. I’m aware of using auditory memory heavily in this piece too, perhaps because I find the other sources of memory harder to access in Debussy.

Nonetheless, I am always pleasantly surprised each time I reach the end without a memory hiccup. I wonder if others have had a similar experience.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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