(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)
This piece is pure Debussy – a beautiful, quiet contemplative tone poem. Like “Des pas sur la neige” (Footprints in the Snow) from the first book of preludes, it is not terribly technically challenging, but it must be played with careful attention to every note to succeed.
While Canope has superficially very simple melodies and structure, this masks a very subtle harmonic structure and a complex exploration of sonorities. Claudio Arrau considered it to be one of Debussy’s greatest preludes and said “It’s miraculous that he created, in so few notes, this kind of depth.” (quoted in Roberts, p. 281)
Paul Roberts has a thorough and enlightening discussion of this piece in his book Images, which was my primary source for the connection with Javanese gamelan music described below.
From Schmitz, pp. 181-182: Canope refers to a type burial urn or jar from the city of Canope in Egypt: “Very simple in line, these jars bear no ornaments, and the sculptured head that covers them has a nearly stylized classical simplicity.”
Canopic jars from the 18th Dynasty
Though Canope is in Egypt, Debussy’s Canope is strongly influenced by Javanese gamelan music. In a letter to the poet Pierre Louys in 1895 (reprinted in Debussy Letters), Debussy said “Remember the music of Java which contained every nuance, even the ones we no longer have names for. There tonic and dominant had become empty shadows of use only to stupid children.” There is very little sign of tonic and dominant in this piece.
Emotional Content: This piece, marked “very calm and gently sad” at the opening, is very quiet and contemplative. It is evocative of an eastern ritual, with a hint of sensuousness. Though there is very little overt emotional dynamics in this piece (animation at m. 17 and climaxes of a sort at mm. 24 and 28), Canope is evocative of vast emotion.
Shape and Flow: Superficially, Canope is composed of three simple motifs: Motif A is the parallel chords of the opening with the bass echo in m. 5. Motif B is the simple melody in mm. 7-10, and motif C is the short melody line in mm. 11-12. The structure of the piece is then something like ABCDBEAC, where D and E are non-melodic interludes. In other words at this level it is difficult to see a natural structure in this piece. This type of analysis does not really contribute to understanding Canope.
As Roberts points out, the key to understanding Canope is seeing it as a direct homage to the Javanese gamelan. The gamelan ensemble has a bass gong whose overtones include all the notes that are played by the other instruments. Then the structures like the non-harmonic chords followed by melody in motifs B and C, for example in mm. 7 and 11, can be seen as in imitation of the gamelan gong followed by a melody including the high overtones. From this perspective the percussive nature of motif B and C are natural, since the gamelan ensemble is composed of percussion instruments. Even motif A can be seen as a quiet percussive melody. The interludes in mm. 14-19 and mm. 24-25 can be understood as direct imitations of gamelan instruments.
To quote Roberts (after a discussion of mm 24-25 on p.165): “Only by imagining these sounds on eastern instruments, and the physical sensations involved, can a pianist do justice to Debussy’s demands. There is little in the traditional nineteenth-century piano repertoire that can help us.”
But of course Canope does not sound anything at all like Javanese gamelan music. Debussy used his experience of gamelan music to inspire a new way of thinking about music and sound. The result is this beautiful, gentle prelude.
Another perspective on the shape of this piece occurs to me: the opening theme (mm. 1-6) are in an almost conventional dorian mode with an interesting modulation in the middle. But then we have an exotic, almost independent gamelan-like piece breaking in suddenly at m. 7 and ending somewhat climatically at m. 25. This is followed by a restatement of our dorian opening theme, modulating into a echo (dream? memory?) of the gamelan theme. Almost as if Debussy wrote the gamelan-inspired center section independently, but then felt he had to wrap it in a gentle introduction and exit…Don’t take this too seriously – it’s probably a crackpot idea.
Perhaps the best way to understand this piece is to listen to a good recording. I’m partial to Paul Jacob’s interpretation.
mm. 1 – 4 (marked “very calm and gently sad”): I play the opening chords slowly, gently and quietly, but without the soft pedal in order to maintain clarity. I use full damper pedal, changing on each chord with a very slight overlap. This gives a resonance to the chords. There is both a harmonic and a dynamic mini-climax m. 3, where the left hand should sound clearly but not louder than the right-hand chords.
mm. 5-6: I catch the pianissimo opening chord in m. 5 with the damper pedal, which I hold for the rest of the measure then half-pedal the bass notes in m. 6. I play the bass octaves with both hands. Be sure to keep both measures pianissimo.
mm. 7-10: Notice that the A in the bass is piano, while the following chord is pianissimo. Schmitz, p 182, points out that the bass A is part of the phrase from the previous measure and should be played that way. The chord almost breaks into that phrase, heralding the new, exotic melody. The melody is piano and is played percussively, but with the damper pedal held throughout the measure. I slowly release the damper pedal in m. 8, as indicated by the rests, by half-pedaling on the first notes, then fully changing pedal on the E-flat. M. 9 and 10 are similar, with the pedal released somewhat earlier. I play the octaves with both hands. M. 10 ends with a climax leading to the next motif.
You might object that there is no slur on the staccato notes in mm. 7 and 9. But in my original edition facsimile it is marked to play some of the notes in the melody with the left hand while holding the left-hand chords at least one measure. The only way this can be done is to hold the sustain pedal throughout the measure. I therefore interpret the staccato markings as indicating a percussive, bell-like touch, which is what they usually mean when there is a slur.
mm. 11-13: I hold the chords in these measures with my hands while playing the melody and half-pedaling as needed to avoid too much mud without losing the resonance. Again I take the staccato marking to indicate a bell-like sound, which makes a nice articulation contrasting the two high B-flat notes in mm. 11 and 13.
mm. 14-15: I’m not sure what to make of these measures: they contain the gong-like harmonically complex chords similar to the previous measures, but the melody suddenly has a distinctly French romantic feel. It’s almost like waking up in the middle of a gamelan concert and realizing you are actually still in France. I play them pretty much as written, holding the right-hand chord while playing the melody, and holding the left-hand chords throughout. Sustain pedal mostly down with changes as required for clarity.
mm. 16-19: Then high percussive notes pull us back into the exotic music. I think these measures would be utterly mysterious without thinking of a percussion ensemble. Though percussive, these measures are still very quiet, almost in the distance. I press the soft pedal at the beginning of m. 17 and release it at the end of m. 19. Things are happening: m. 17 is marked “gradually more animated”. Note that in m. 18 the chord is piano while the bass note is pianissimo, the opposite of before.
mm. 22-23: Very similar to mm. 7-10, except the chords have dynamic emphasis over the bass note. I interpret the pianissimo to apply to the bass note only, so the melody is piano. I hold the G octave throughout the measures while playing the melody with both hands, as usual half-pedaling as required to avoid mud. Again this section ends in a climax leading to…
mm. 24-25: Roberts (p. 165) points our that there is an instrument in gamelan orchestra which plays a 7-note glissando, and this is probably what Debussy had in mind in these measures. The C and E-flat octaves suggest small oriental cymbals or chimes. Therefore this interlude is a quiet percussive climax. Roberts suggests holding the sustain pedal throughout each of these measures, which would be faithful to the gamelan sound. I think it also works to change the pedal at the A-flat at the end of the glissando, being careful to hold the A-flat each time. I find both approaches equally appealing.
mm. 26-29: This is a simple restatement of the opening chords leading to as close as this piece comes to a harmonic resolution in m. 30. I play these very similarly to mm. 1-4.
mm. 30-33: These measures are remarkable because (as Roberts, p. 163, points out) the high melody contains notes that are in the very high and almost inaudible overtone sequence of the chords. The are to be played very softly. M. 30 is marked “very soft and very expressive”, while m. 32 is marked “even more soft”. I use the soft pedal for the last two measures, applied slowly during the last two notes of m. 31. The last three notes in the right hand, m. 32, are percussive and very soft, decreasing in volume until the last note is barely heard. Roberts points out that this allows the listener to infer the final high D, held in the chord, which gives the piece an implied but not stated harmonic resolution.