Hommage a Rameau (Images I, 1905)

(Homage to Rameau)

(Here are my thoughts about playing this piece. Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.)

This piece, the second of the first bookof Images, is very classical and abstract in approach. Schmitz says of this piece that some musicographers consider it “…one of the most beautiful pieces written for piano since the last sonatas of Beethoven.” I find this piece truly one of the most beautiful ever written for piano

Emotional content: Hommage a Rameau is to me an emotional journey inward, from its simple classical beginning through the increasing depth of the first two pages and the almost shamanistic dance of the middle section to the profound and peaceful ending. Understood as a journey from simple classical form to deep inner experience this piece has a natural flow

Shape and flow: Hommage a Rameau has the feel of a set of dances. The piece breaks into four sections, each deeper and vaster in feel than the previous. The first is a simple dance of increasing sadness. The second section is somewhat dreamy, falling into a trance. The third section is a more rhythmic, hypnotic dance building to a deep release. The fourth section is a peaceful, reverential restatement of the themes from the previous sections. This piece is a study in contrasts and the teasing climax. By teasing climax I mean dynamics where a climax is almost reached but is backed off from at the last minute. This technique takes several forms in this piece, most notably attaining harmonic climax while reducing volume. Of course a full climax is eventually reached towards the end of the middle section.


Section 1: the opening sarabande (measures 1-13)

From Schmitz: The opening melody must be played strictly together.

Measures 1-4: a simple monophonic statement of the theme. I play it very slowly, with soft pedal through measure 4 and very little sustain pedal. It is a sad opening.

Measures 5-9: I release the soft pedal here for contrast. This section has three voices, which must be clearly delineated from one another. For measures 5-6 I use the sostenuto pedal to catch the low G#, allowing sustain pedal changes during the melody lines. Roberts advocates holding the sustain pedal during the chord changes, looking for the dissonance on the third and fifth beats. I prefer a somewhat more transparent sound, though a more skillful touch than mine may be able to sustain the chords and maintain transparency. In all cases the voicing of the top line is critical for clarity while maintaining softness. I release the sostenuto pedal for measures 7-9, using full changes of pedal with each quarter note.

Measures 10-13: Initially a restatement of the opening theme, with a segue into next section. I return to the soft pedal for measure 10, held until the second beat of measure 11. The addition of new voices to the theme in measures 12 and 13 thicken the texture, so I meld them with the melody in anticipation of the next section.

Section 2: moving into dream (measures 14-30)

Measures 14-19: These measures are very beautiful. I catch the opening bass notes of measure 14 with the sostenuto pedal, releasing them on the change of harmony on the third beat of measure 15. Throughout this whole section I keep as much of the phrasing in my hands as possible, changing pedal often to avoid blurring. There are three voices in these measures: a top melody in octaves sometimes shared between the hands, the middle voice in thirds, and the bass voice. I keep them as distinct as possible, bringing out the dissonances between them.

Measures 19-20: This is one of my favorite moments in the piece: measure 19 seems to be leading up to a major climax, which indeed happens harmonically, but the dynamics drop to piano. I exaggerate the contrasting dynamics somewhat more than most recordings I’ve heard. This always sends shivers up my spine.

Measures 20-24: The earlier three-part melody is broadened, leading up to a full climax in measure 24. I make heavy use of the pedal here. There is (for me) a difficult technical problem in measures 22 and 23: I cannot reach the left-hand chord (a D9?) appearing on the 4th quarter beat of measure 22 and the 2nd and 4th quarter beats of measure 23. I usually roll the chord, and a friend of mine has suggested playing the low E of this chord as a preceding eighth or sixteenth note.

Measures 24-26: Following the climax is an echo effect, in which I bring increasing clarity, releasing the pedal for the monophonic melody of measure 26.

Measures 26-30: A very solemn restatement of the opening theme, bringing the two opening sections to a close and setting up the major transition to come. I catch the low bass note beginning measure 28 with the sostenuto pedal with the left side of my left foot, then depress the middle soft pedal and hold both with my left foot until the bass rest in measure 30.

Section 3: hypnotic dance (measures 31-57)

I take this section to have the clarity of a lucid dream, in contrast to the soft dreaminess of sections 1 and 2. I play this entire section without the soft pedal, for increased clarity.

Measures 31-37: in these measures we are suddenly transported somewhere else entirely. I think of these measures as almost a trumpet fanfare calling us to the hypnotic dance. The opening theme is an important one for this section.

The thick chords here make it a challenge to maintain clarity. I again catch the low octave at the end of measure 30 with the sostenuto pedal, and hold through measure 38. This allows changes of sustain pedal as needed for clarity. I voice the thirds in measures 33-34 for clear, bell-like tone.

I find it useful to think of the chords in measure 35 as follows: right hand: Fm aug6, Eflatm7, Fdim7; left hand: Bflatm7, Eflatm7, Fdim7, Gm6, Bflatm7.

Measure 37 is a descending melody, taking us to the dance rhythm.

Measures 38-42: The opening of the dance theme. From here to measure 51 is strictly rhythmic. It’s pretty thick so watch the pedal. Note the crescendo in measure 41, which I hold to the end of measure 42.

Measures 44-50: These measures are the most powerful and surprising I know of. The harmonic structure is completely mysterious to me, but the effect is simple and direct.

The dynamics drop to piano, build to forte in measure 45, drop back to piano in measure 46, then build to the full climax of the piece in measure 51. The effect is one of building waves. The harmonic progression strongly contributes to the climax. The scale used for the top voice in measures 43-46 is quite unusual (I don’t find them in any of my texts), with the middle voice arpegiatting an A4, and the bass playing a D. The resulting tension is released a little with the relatively conventional harmony of measure 47. Measures 48-50 brings in an even stranger harmonic structure, but it is completely effective.

I put a small pause between measures 47 and 48, and begin measure 48 very softly, building up to the big climax in measure 51. I experience the beginning of measure 48 as a profound expansion of my emotional universe (OK that’s pretty strong, but you should try it for yourself!).

Measures 51-56. The big climax of the piece. Anyone who thinks Debussy’s music is wimpy should check this section out. Pull out all the stops: this is the kind of music that makes expensive grand pianos worthwhile. The written timing in the arpeggios gives a good sense of the intent, and I play them somewhat freely. Though strong, there is something very tender about this climax, particularly the change in harmony in the chords. Measures 54-56 drop dynamically to piano along with a ritard, leading to a very gentle segue into measure 57.

Section 4: reverence (measures 57-76)

Measures 57-65: At first sight a simple restatement of the opening theme. But there are important harmonic and textural differences. I hold the soft pedal for measures 57-62. I play measures 57-58 with minimum sustain pedal, emphasizing the rests in the bass line. For measures 61-62 I catch the low G# with the sostenuto pedal (still holding the soft pedal with the same foot). The resolution at the end of measure 64 is quiet but strong.

Measures 65-76: The reverence deepens to an almost church-like atmosphere. The hypnotic dance theme floats in and out of the broad chords. When I play these measures I feel as if I’m whispering my deepest secrets.

I voice the chords as resonant and clear, though quiet, holding the soft pedal for measures 65-68 and again for measures 72-76. I release the soft pedal for measures 69-71 to bring out a little more clarity for the small swell in these measures. I voice the dance theme for clarity among the chords (as marked).

I reduce the use of pedal in measure 71 to almost nothing, to bring out the restatement of the opening theme, holding the chords as marked.

For measure 72, I play the second (B) chord with the left hand, then silently retake the low G# octave and change sustain pedal on each chord in measure 73. Then I use full sustain pedal for measure 74 as I fade dynamically.

Be sure to make the last chord as quiet and gentle as possible.

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