As a child, did you practise your scales and exercises on the piano with due care and attention?
Yes? Congratulations, well done.
No? You didn’t? You fiddled about, or let your fingers take you to distant tonal fields away from C major? Hmm … well, you are not alone. Debussy’s Dr Gradus ad Parnassum owes its name to that esteemed tome by Clementi : Gradus ad Parnassum, which is packed with useful studies for different technical demands. Debussy’s piece, although an excellent workout for the fingers, gives the impression of an executant who has good intentions, but who becomes bored with the status quo of C major; there are tangential by-roads to be explored, and new pianistic antics to try out. And why should the RH and LH be confined to treble or bass clef respectively…
Off we go – a time-honoured semiquaver pattern in C. The rot sets in at about bar 7 where the temptation is to explore a much more exciting series of notes with hands crossed – look at me, Mum! – and let’s do it again and again, with an A flat this time; and then what about experimenting with a new effect, the LH snatching at notes while the RH chases it, with a few darker notes thrown in for fun…
A rall … where were we? Ah yes; back to C Major for the bit from the beginning; but a modulation to E-ish, the LH playfully jumping over the RH for random notes and short bursts of melody. A descending scale takes us to lower regions and to B flat major, and the opening theme at half speed; oooh – now down a tone, more juicy chords and lashings of pedal this time…
Right – back to work, C major and yet another go at that bit from the beginning; thank goodness, the end of practice time is near, so a spirited dash to the end, faster and faster, and a few final, emphatic chords. Finished!! Sound familiar?!
Dr Gradus ad Parnassum is the first piece of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite which was published in 1908 and dedicated to his daughter, who was three years old at the time. Some of her toys make guest appearances: the final piece of the suite is the Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, and the infectious rhythm of its cheeky, syncopated opening is completely irresistible. The LH vamps away, sometimes leaping over the RH’s cheerful melody. Sudden expectant silences and stealthy footsteps herald a sly modulation to G flat major and a dig at the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, rudely interrupted by impertinent acciacciaturas; there is an eventual return to the opening material, with a surprise harmonic shift for one of the phrases.
In between those two pieces are the toy elephant Jimbo’s Lullaby, rocking quietly back and forth on a pentatonic melody with gently clashing seconds in the accompaniment. Then there’s the Serenade for the Doll, requiring great evenness between the hands as they share the melody and its syncopated backing. The Snow is Dancing, my favourite, is a haunting little piece; The Little Shepherd evokes the lonely sound of a shepherd’s pipe.
Here is the suite, performed by Pascal Rogé –
I wish I could write a happy ending to this post, but there isn’t one. It saddens me that Chouchou, Claude-Emma, died aged thirteen, a year after Debussy’s death.