X is for siXtes – Debussy’s Etude pour les Sixtes

Chopin and Debussy - The French ConnectionThe raison d’être for writing these blogposts in 2012 has been The French Connection – Debussy, who met Liszt in Rome, and who studied with a pupil of Chopin. And we see the closest intersection between Chopin and Debussy in Debussy’s two books of Etudes, written in 1915.

At that time, Debussy had undertaken to edit the complete works of Chopin for Durand, including Chopin’s two books of Etudes, Op 10 and Op 25. Debussy dedicated his own Etudes to the memory of Chopin, with perhaps a sideways glance at Liszt in the first Etude – pour les‘cinq doigts” d’après Monsieur Czerny, who was Liszt’s teacher. As well as Etudes for thirds, octaves and chords etc, which pianists would expect to find in books of Etudes, there are also Etudes for fourths, for ornaments, and for les huit doigts – a quicksilver study for fingers alone – no thumbs allowed.

The Etude pour les Sixtes even begins and ends with the same key signature as Chopin’s Etude in sixths, that of five flats. I hesitate to write ‘D flat major’, because although the piece ends clearly in that key, it is hard to discern a tonality at the very beginning. And, as well as Lento, dolce sostenuto, it begins mezza voce, one of Chopin’s favourite indications, and, as in Chopin’s, uses triplets as its main rhythmic currency.

Here is Gieseking, and a copy of the score –

Apart from occasional octaves, every interval is a sixth, in both hands. Voicing the sixths needs careful attention; the RH fifth and fourth fingers must sing, especially in the lyrical outer sections of the work, while the thumb and second finger are more discreet. Although not a virtuosic piece, it is not an easy option. Fast, repeated sixths in the lively, middle part need a relaxed wrist; the many tempo indications – sixteen on the second page alone – need careful observation. The intervals are bound to feel awkward at first, but the piece repays careful preparation and fingering; Debussy intentionally did not finger any of the Etudes.

Try pairing the Etude – pour les Sixtes with the Etude – pour les huit doigts, as I have in recitals this year, as an introduction to Debussy’s late, abstract works.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida  in the Etude –  pour les huit doigts:

-and performing the complete Etudes –

– and discussing the Etudes – in German.

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