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14 minutes reading time (2729 words)

The recorded legacy of Claude Debussy

cm1 Mary Garden in the role of Mélisande (see endnote 1)
Table 1: Debussy’s acoustic recording with Mary Garden.

In 1904, soprano Mary Garden entered the Paris recording studio of Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd. with her pianist, Claude Debussy. Garden sang three excerpts from Ariettes oubliées, a set of chansons Debussy dedicated to her, as well as an excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera for which she premiered the title role. The resulting recordings can most accurately be described as acoustic because prior to 1925, electrical microphones were unavailable in the recording industry. Table 1 summarizes Debussy's acoustic recordings.

During Debussy's lifetime, pianists who wished to record their performances possessed two options: acoustic recording horns or piano rolls. The latter medium can be divided into two types: reproducing piano rolls and pianola rolls. All three of these recording media present barriers for modern listeners attempting to understand Debussy's pianism. This article will examine the recording process associated with each medium so that listeners can approach Debussy's recordings with an informed ear. Special attention will be given to the complex process used to create Debussy's reproducing piano rolls, as these recordings provide the most direct insight into his solo piano music.

Acoustic recordings

Claude Debussy's 1904 performance with Mary Garden would have been funneled into a large recording horn, causing a diaphragm equipped with a stylus to etch the resulting sound waves onto a master disc. These discs could then be replicated and made commercially available to the public. For modern listeners, recordings captured via acoustic horns often sound distorted. This is partially due to the narrow range of frequencies acoustic recording devices could capture. While the human ear can discern frequencies between 20-20,000 cycles per second, early acoustic recording devices could only pick up sounds between 168-2,000 cycles per second. Thus, recordings that contained notes outside the range of E3 to C7 resulted in extreme distortion.2 Furthermore, the diaphragms inside early recording horns were not sufficiently sensitive to record soft sounds or overtones, resulting in recordings that sound hollow and monochromatic.

Critical reactions to Debussy's acoustic recordings have been mixed, although Garden's singing has generally garnered more praise than Debussy's playing. Richard Fletcher has described Garden's voice as "clear and perfectly pitched," achieving the "extreme sécheresse,"3 (dryness) that Debussy admired. These comments are to be expected of acoustic vocal recordings because performers could sing directly into the recording horn, which produced a focused sound. On the other hand, Fletcher asserts that "Debussy's piano sags throughout,"4 and Hugues Cuénod describes a "tinkly piano"5 sound. Despite the technical limitations of this recording medium, Debussy's performance of "Green" from Ariettes oubliées reveals exceptional facility with rapid octave jumps as well as crisp, decidedly leggiero passagework. To hear Debussy's recording of "Green," click here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k128855z/f2.media

Reproducing piano recordings

Given the limitations associated with acoustic recording technology, it is not surprising that Debussy would have sought an alternative means of recording his solo compositions. Until electrical recordings became the industry standard in 1925, reproducing pianos represented the only alternative means of recording live performances. Reproducing pianos offered two important benefits for performers. First, they could convey a broad range of dynamics and expression. Kent Holliday asserts, "The representation by such an instrument actually conveys an individual pianist's interpretation of a musical composition."6

Secondly, piano rolls offered the ability to record longer pieces of music. The time constraints associated with acoustic discs disappeared in 1887 when M. Welte & Söhne, the firm for which Debussy recorded, introduced paper piano rolls. These rolls could store approximately thirteen minutes of music. Thus, Debussy's recording of the complete Children's Corner on a single piano roll represented a major breakthrough because it would have required at least three sides of a gramophone record.7

Debussy recorded fourteen pieces using M. Welte & Söhne's reproducing piano system. Table 2 summarizes Debussy's recordings for Welte. 

The following section describes the probable recording process Debussy would have experienced with M. Welte & Söhne. Due to space limitations, the description below provides a broad overview of Welte's recording and playback process. For a more in-depth explanation of this complex system, please visit The Pianola Institute's website, which contains animated graphics, technical manuals, and explanatory photographs.

Recording notes and rhythms

It is astounding to think that a series of punched holes on a roll of paper could accurately portray the nuances of Debussy's playing. Indeed, capturing human expressivity via a mechanical device represented the crux of the recording process for reproducing piano companies. While numerous museums and private collectors own instruments capable of playing reproducing piano rolls, the complex instruments used to record them are nonexistent. This makes it difficult to determine exactly how the recording process worked, particularly with respect to capturing dynamic information. As a result, modern scholars must rely on photographs, repair manuals, and oral accounts to piece together Welte's recording process.

Before discussing the methods used by M. Welte & Söhne to record expression, it is helpful to understand the basic pitch recording process, which was quite simple. When Debussy sat down at Welte's recording piano, he would have played each piece in its entirety as though it were a live performance. However, the piano on which he played would have contained several important alterations that allowed it to capture Debussy's performance. One might think of these alterations as turning the piano into a musical typewriter, although this does not do justice to the complex process.

Essentially, a thin vertical rod of metal or carbon was attached under each key, and a cup of mercury was situated below each rod. When a note was played, the rod dipped into the mercury, producing an electrical signal. These signals were sent to a machine that produced ink markings on a continuously moving roll of paper. Each ink mark corresponded to a specific note on the piano. The marks were then punched out, resulting in small holes that provided an accurate representation of a pianist's pitches and rhythms.

Indeed, photographic evidence confirms a device mounted underneath the keyboard of Welte's recording piano. Example 3 depicts Ferruccio Busoni seated at the piano during a recording session in Welte's studio.10 To the right of Busoni's knees, one can see a rectangular box attached to the underside of the keyboard.

Example 3: Ferruccio Busoni recording for Welte-Mignon.

Recording dynamics

Example 4: Excerpt from Welte-Mignon service manual.

While individual pitches and the length of time a performer held them could be captured easily, recording nuances in voicing and dynamics remained a challenge. Scholars have long debated whether expressive information was captured automatically or inserted after the performance by experienced musicians who served as "recording masters."11 Recent evidence suggests that during the earliest days of Welte-Mignon's production, a recording master did mark the roll with dynamics, but inventors Edwin Welte and Karl Bockisch desired a more authentic means of capturing this information.

In 2014, Gerhard Dangel discovered a note written by Horst Wahl, an audio engineer who worked closely with Karl Bockisch. Published in 1986, this note confirms that Welte devised a system capable of recording dynamic information as the pianist played:

"[They]...finally developed a (pneumatic action) rail with a whole series of finely graded holes, which regulated the passage of air, responded in proportion to the various loudnesses and thereby provided a different way of recording the dynamic shadings."12

These dynamic shadings were captured and marked on the roll in a similar manner as the pitches. A second set of carbon rods underneath each key measured variations in the speed at which a key was played. This information was sent to two marking pens situated on the right and left side of the master roll. Markings on the right controlled pitches above G4 while markings on the left controlled pitches below F#4. In this way, seismographic lines representing dynamics for bass and treble were recorded in real time along with the pitches and rhythms. The Pianola Institute concludes,

"the system...would have been perfectly capable of marking up both the note and dynamic traces on master rolls, with no human intervention after the time of recording, save the punching out of perforations as indicated by the ink traces."13

Evidence from a Welte-Mignon service manual confirms the presence of seismographic lines on each side of the roll (Example 4).14

Playback mechanism

Example 5: Welte-Mignon tracker bar.

To replay a reproducing piano roll, one must possess a piano equipped with a reproducing system. Manufacturers of the reproducing piano mechanism collaborated with popular piano makers of the time, such as Baldwin, Weber, Knabe, and Steinway, to install their playback devices into these instruments. Reproducing pianos contain an electric motor that generates a constant level of suction. The suction is directed to a metal tracker bar (Example 5)15 which contains a single hole for each note on the piano as well as holes that control expressive elements such as smooth crescendos/decrescendos, sudden crescendos/ decrescendos, quick accents, and pedaling.

During the playback process, the piano roll passes over the tracker bar at a constant rate of speed. When holes on the piano roll align with holes on the tracker bar, the resulting suction activates the appropriate key(s) and expression valves. In this way, perforations on a paper piano roll are able to simulate a pianist's performance.

While there might always be debate about the fidelity and reliability of reproducing piano recordings, one fact is certain: artists who recorded for Welte did not edit their rolls. The Pianola Institute confirms that, unlike other reproducing piano companies,

"[Welte] did not encourage its pianists to participate in the editing process...pianists could listen to their rolls once perforated, and if they were unsatisfied with them, they could choose to record them again, but there was no suggestion of the original recordings being alterable in any way."16

This claim is supported by the sheer number of piano rolls Welte released during its first two years of operation.17 In the public's view, Welte quickly gained a reputation for its laissez-faire approach to editing, and numerous artists—including Debussy—endorsed their rolls as faithful representations of their playing.18

Pianola recordings

Example 6: Front view of a Steck pianola.

The final recording medium available to pianists during Debussy's lifetime also involved paper piano rolls. These pianola rolls differ greatly from the reproducing piano rolls described above. There are two reasons for this distinction. First, while the markings on reproducing piano rolls resulted from a pianist's live performance, the vast majority of pianola rolls were punched mechanically using a copy of the score as a guide. Secondly, while reproducing piano rolls can automatically re-create expressive performances, pianola rolls require a pianolist (the person operating the pianola) to pump a pair of pedals while manipulating a series of levers that control dynamics and tempo. Without a pianolist, these rolls would be void of expressive information.

Debussy's compositions appear on both types of piano rolls, but as Roy Howat notes, pianola rolls "are clearly not in the same league of direct information as the Welte rolls."19 The primary reason for this is that phrasing is determined entirely by the pianolist. In addition to generating suction and creating dynamics using two foot pedals (Example 6)20, the pianolist could create subtle gradations in tempo by manipulating a lever according to an expression line marked on the roll itself (Example 7)21.

Additional levers on the pianola allowed the pianolist to manipulate the damper pedal as well as the volume of melodic and accompanimental notes.

Composers occasionally oversaw the insertion of expression lines in their pianola rolls. Roy Howat notes that La soirée dans Grenade and D'un cahier d'esquisses contain a statement by  Debussy which endorses the expression markings as his own.  

Howat warns, however, that this endorsement could very likely have been motivated by monetary gain—not artistic approval.22 Unfortunately, further discussion of the pianola lies outside the scope of this article.

Example 7: Pianola roll with expression line.

Debussy's pianism

As mentioned earlier, Debussy's recordings for M. Welte & Söhne provide the most compelling portrait of his pianism. Pierian's CD release, Claude Debussy: The Composer as Pianist,23 offers a carefully crafted reproduction of Debussy's piano rolls. Due to space limitations, a detailed description of each piece lies outside the scope of this article. Instead, notable features of Debussy's Golliwogg's Cakewalk performance will be discussed briefly. To hear an excerpt of Debussy's performance, please click below. 

Debussy - Golliwogg's Cakewalk Clip.m4a

Upon listening to Golliwogg's Cakewalk, one immediately notices the freedom Debussy takes with the notated rhythms. Throughout the A section, right-hand sixteenth notes are noticeably shortened while eighth notes are slightly lengthened, creating a sense of freneticism that modern listeners might initially consider "sloppy." As Cecilia Dunoyer observes, this theory of clumsiness might initially seem like a technical shortcoming, but Debussy's precision in other virtuosic works, such as Le vent dans la plaine, undermines this notion. Instead, Debussy's choices were likely deliberate.24

Perhaps most interesting is Debussy's pedaling, which seems to emphasize changing dynamic markings at the expense of notated articulations. For example, Debussy carefully observes his indication to play piano and Très net et très sec in measure 10. When the same theme returns in measure 18, the dynamic changes to forte, and Debussy uses generous amounts of pedal. The decision to create a forte sound through the use of pedal seems to overrule the Très net et très sec indication. Similarly, the repetition in measures 28-29 is pedaled considerably more than the parallel passage at measures 26-27, an interpretation that contradicts the sudden piano indication after a quick crescendo.

While generalizations such as these can be described via text, the best way to explore Debussy's pianism is by listening with a score in hand. Having learned about the recording media available during Debussy's lifetime, I hope you will approach his recordings with more informed ears. In doing so, a new realm of interpretive possibilities will emerge for both you and your students! 

1 (April 4, 1908). "Mary Garden as Mélisande." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Online Catalog, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11687.

2 Day, T. (2000). A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 9.

3 Fletcher, R. D. (1954 February). "The Mary Garden of Record." Saturday Review 27: 54.

4 Ibid., 47.

5 Cuénod, H. (1964 July). " Remembrances of an Enchantress." High Fidelity Magazine: 37.

6 Holliday, K. (1989). Reproducing Pianos Past and Present. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2.

7 Ibid., 4.

8 Smith, C. D. and Howe, R. J. (1994). The Welte-Mignon: Its Music and Musicians. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 356.

9 (2018, April 7). The Reproducing Piano—Welte-Mignon. The Pianola Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/reproducing_ welte.cfm.

10 (1907, March 16). Ferruccio Busoni Recording for the Welte-Mignon. The Pianola Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/ reproducing_welte.cfm.

11 Givens, L. (1970). Re-enacting the Artist: A Story of the Ampico Reproducing Piano. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 28.

12 (2018, April 7). The Reproducing Piano—Welte-Mignon. The Pianola Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/reproducing_ welte.cfm.

13 Ibid.

14 Holliday, Reproducing Pianos Past and Present, 78.

15 Dangel, G. Tracker Bar of a Welte-Mignon T98 Piano. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trackerbar.jpg.

16 (2018, April 7). The Reproducing Piano—Welte-Mignon. The Pianola Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/reproducing_ welte.cfm.

17 Van Riper, J. (2012). The Reproducing Piano: A Portrait of the Artist (Doctoral dissertation). George Mason University, 91-92.

18 (1927). Library of Welte-Mignon Music Records. New York: De Luxe Reproducing Roll Corporation. Found in Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music, 13-14.

19 Howat, R. (1994). "Debussy and Welte," The Pianola Journal 7: 6.

20 Monnin, J. "Steck Pianola Piano." Musées départementaux de la Haute-Saône. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, M0354 1951-40-004 2, CC BY-SA 3.0.

21 (2018, April 11). History of the Pianola—Piano Players. The Pianola Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pianola.org/history/history_ pianoplayers.cfm.

22 Howat. "Debussy and Welte," 6.

23 (2000). Claude Debussy: The Composer as Pianist. Piano roll transfers overseen by Kenneth Caswell. Pierian Recording Society (0001). CD.

24 Dunoyer, C. (1999). Debussy and Early Debussystes at the Piano. In J. R. Briscoe (Ed.), Debussy in Performance (91-118). New Haven: Yale University Press, 95-96. 

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