Debussy in full color: Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s poetic piano at CPA

Sonia Delaunay. Simultaneous Contrasts, 1912.

La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, written by Blaise Cendrars and painted by Sonia Delaunay, 1913.

The first time I can remember experiencing synesthesia was the first time I listened to a recording of the Debussy Preludes, Book II (1913). The music jumped out at me in colored shapes and lines. I couldn’t get over it. I wore that record out. Years later, I saw artwork that sounded just like the Preludes–the simultaneous color paintings of Sonia Delaunay, contemporaneous with Book II. I saw those shifting, overlapping colors in my ears, clearer than ever before, during the wonderful piano recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, presented on November 11 by Carolina Performing Arts.

CPA included this recital in its series on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring because of the connection between the two composers. Just imagine: Stravinsky (1882-1971) writes the four-hand piano version of The Rite and takes it to his older pal Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who has been much enamored of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. They sight-read the score together at the first performance. It boggles the mind. As Aimard said in his fascinating post-concert talk, there is quite a contrast between Debussy’s “intimate world and the ernormous, violent world of The Rite of Spring.”

But back to the Preludes. There are a dozen in Book II, and hearing Aimard speak about them was almost as good as hearing him play them. “Debussy loved day-to-day pleasures in life,” he said. “In each of the preludes, there is a different world of color–and a shimmering between two color or harmonic worlds.”  The way Aimard described these harmonies and colors, he could have been talking about Delaunay’s (and other Orphists and simultaneous color painters) techniques.

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Colors, n.d., c. 1912.

“Harmony has not the function of a step, of going somewhere,” he said. “It stays, its own color.” But Debussy “surrounds one note with changing harmonies,” and that is very like Delaunay. Or, he makes two notes move against three, to make an undulating travel inside the harmony. In a trill, the light changes. And then there is the manipulation of space. Aimard explained how Debussy used scales at different speeds to give us the sense of changing distance in space from the sounds/colors of the final Book II prelude, Feux d’artifice (Fireworks). Something very similar goes on in Delaunay’s work from this period. Debussy also like games, tucking bits of other music into his compositions, like figures hidden in plain sight in a landscape. Quotes from Petrushka are scattered throughout the Preludes, and a snippet from The Rite is hidden in number 11, hidden by making the notes piu pianissimo rather than sung out by four blazing trumpets. Here’s Delaunay sneaking some figures into her abstraction.

Sonia Delaunay – Le Bal Bullier 1913 (detail).

Aimard also played the very short Three Night Pieces for Piano by Heinz Holliger (b. 1939) that were just about the saddest music I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I could have borne for them to go on. But they were like a bitter drink before a rich dinner: after them came the whole set of Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. I had never been able to get worked up about Schumann, but I suppose that’s because I had never heard him played with such rich feeling.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/DG.

One response

  1. Pingback: Double Boulez « The Five Points Star

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Ocracoke Observer

Community newspaper of Ocracoke, NC

David Cecelski

New writing, collected essays, latest discoveries

Piedmont Trails

Genealogy and History in North Carolina and Beyond

Piedmont Laureate

Promoting awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont Region

Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" -- Director's Blog

a countdown to the next performance, March 26-29, 2020

North Carolina Preservation Consortium

Preserving tangible and intangible heritage of enduring value

The Bamboo Wind

Sculpture & Video Poetry


A topnotch site

peter harris, tapestryweaver

TAPestry And DESIgn

Backstrap Weaving

My weaving , my inspiration, tutorials and more........

Social Justice For All

Working towards global equity and equality

Not At Home In It


inkled pink

warp, weave, be happy!

Peggy Osterkamp's Weaving Blog

"Weaving should be fun!"


Studio Life of a Weaver, Spinner, Dyer

Linda Frye Burnham

Writer and poet

The Upstager

All the world's an upstage.

Literary Life in Italy

Looking at Italy through literature

%d bloggers like this: