The Girl with the Flaxen Hair


Introduction

This walkthrough and accompanying Annotated Study Edition was kindly commissioned for the Online Academy by Caroline Bailey.

La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano. It is the eighth piece from the first book of Préludes and was composed around 1910. The title La fille aux cheveux de lin came from Leconte de Lisle’s poem by the same name, included in the Chansons ecossaises (Scottish Songs) from 1852.

The first few lines are translated thus:

On the lucerne midst flowers in bloom,
Who sings praises to morning?
It is the girl with golden hair,
The beauty with lips of cherry.

For, love, in clear summer sunlight,
Has soared with the lark and sung now.

Debussy is painting a picture of an innocent and naive Scottish girl, and uses conventional diatonic harmony blended in with pentatonic scales, modal cadences as well as parallel chord movement. The shape of the piece is ternary, the B section beginning at bar 19 (un peu animé) and the modified A section from bar 24. The climax of this short 39-bar piece is the Cb major chord in bar 21; the range of dynamics is from pp to mf only. As in all the preludes, the title comes at the end of the piece, in brackets. It is as though Debussy wanted the listener to form their own impressions of the music first – unencumbered by any preconceptions.

Teaching Note

Debussy’s own style of playing was based on simplicity; it was unmannered and free of rhythmic distortions. French music of this period requires a style of playing that is in general much cooler and more objective than Germanic music, for example. We should guard against romanticising the piece by not adding extra rubato – Debussy marks all timings and articulations scrupulously in the score. The metronome mark of crotchet = 66 is the composer’s own.

In the key of Gb major, and only 39 bars long, La fille aux cheveux de lin is deceptively difficult to bring off despite its apparent simplicity. It is a study in tone, and it may be helpful to think in terms of delicate pastel shades. The dynamic level of the first half of the piece is predominantly p; after the climax (a mere mf) we find passages at the pp level. Balance in the chordal passages (bar 5-6, and 21-28) needs to be carefully judged so that the upper notes are clearly audible, but with just the right amount of substance from the lower notes to create a unified texture at the required dynamic level. Achieving the right sound requires a lot of experimentation in the practice room – this can be quite a painstaking process relying on careful, critical listening.

Pedalling is problematic in this piece, requiring thought and organisation - especially in the places with big LH chords (bars 6, 31-32, and 36) and where a bass note needs to be caught in the pedal. Timing the foot with the hands precisely is key in these places. The pedal markings I have included are suggestions only. I have not indicated the shift (soft) pedal at all (una corda) but it is of course there to be used and can certainly assist in creating tonal contrast. Remember that the shift pedal changes the timbre of the sound, and its effects depend largely on the individual piano. It is not all to do with creating a soft dynamic but rather a woolly, unfocussed type sound and can therefore be used in dynamics up to about the mf level (experiment with playing firmly with the shift pedal down). When all is said and done pedalling is a subtle and personal matter that can never really be notated satisfactorily.

“Pedalling cannot be written down, it varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.” Claude Debussy

A legato fingering is essential in a legato context wherever possible, not only for joins but also to ensure good phrase shaping and natural timings. I have indicated fingerings that help achieve a legato by hand (where appropriate), and these include finger substitutions and sliding the 5th finger from a black note to a white to avoid breaking the line. Both hands in bars 14-15 and 21-35 can be connected by hand; it requires positioning the hand so that fingers can go over other fingers but it can be done and will feel and sound very good with a little perseverance. Practise such spots without pedal, getting as close as possible to a connected sound before adding the pedal carefully (remember you do not have to go all the way to the bottom of the pedal).

Last but no means least, maintaining the pulse during long notes is another consideration. I have suggested two rhythmic subdivisions at the start of the piece that may be imagined on the long notes; if this is helpful you might want to add your own in other places.

Resources

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