The Excitement of Editing Debussy’s Works: Interview with Bärenreiter Editor Douglas Woodfull-Harris

Douglas Woodfull-Harris has been working at Bärenreiter as an editor for orchestral and chamber music for more than 25 years and has overseen the production of countless editions. In 2018 we will commemorate Claude Debussy’s death 100 years ago. Among the editions which Woodfull-Harris has personally edited are Debussy’s La Mer, Afternoon of a Faun, his Cello Sonata and String Quartet, Images for piano, Syrinx for Flute, and most recently the Rhapsodie Première for Orchestra with Solo Clarinet (coming in December 2017).

Claude Debussy, c. 1908

Douglas Woodfull-Harris

Why Debussy? What made you turn to his works?

Douglas Woodfull-Harris (DWH): From conversations with musicians I knew that the existing editions had problems such as discrepancies between score and parts of orchestral works. Orchestras had their correction lists and made do with what they had but scholarly-critical editions were badly needed. Also, I simply enjoy the music.

The first work by Debussy which you edited was his cello sonata. How did you proceed?

DWH: Of course, I gathered together all relevant sources as I always do. During this process I investigated a private collection in Winterthur (Switzerland) which nobody appears to have looked into, and there I found sketches to the Cello Sonata.

Now, the final note in measure 18 of the 2nd movement is the lowest note on the cello, a C. In the autograph score, the first edition, and all other published editions a “circle” or “zero” appears above the note (*see example below). This circle today is understood to indicate that the note should be played as an open string. I asked myself why an experienced composer like Debussy would mark a note in such a way that can only be played as the open C string. It simply didn’t make sense to me. The marking seemed redundant. But is it possible Debussy meant something else?

This particular measure is included in the sketches and, believe it or not, there Debussy also wrote a circle above the note but also clearly marked it “pizz.”. Of course, Mozart as well as Stamitz and in particular Paganini had used a circle to mark a left hand pizzicato. So through this sketch I was able to correct something that had been misunderstood for nearly 100 years by publishers and cellists. We are dealing here with the meaning of a musical symbol which changed over the centuries.

So, this discovery of a sketch, which I stumbled over in passing, ended up being of quite some importance; thus I entered this audible correction into my edition.

What a wonderful kick-start to my Debussy research! I was thrilled!


Did you get any reactions from musicians regarding this newly discovered left hand pizzicato?

DWH: I remember talking to a renowned cellist who was skeptical at first. He had always played an open string and had recorded it as such. But, of course, it was easy to convince him about the correctness of this new reading. He was extremely appreciative.

But in general musicians are not always happy when they are confronted with new readings and have to relearn passages which they have played in a particular way for a long time. I remember being called by a South American conductor working in the Boston area who asked me where a horn entry in the first movement, bar 91, of La Mer had disappeared to. I had to tell her that she could listen to this entry now happily being performed by the strings. With luck I had gotten hold of a study score of the work from Debussy’s private collection. (He had the habit of marking changes in scores held in this private collection.) And based on this study score, that had never been used for an edition before – let alone was widely known -, I could prove that he had reassigned the horn entry to the strings.

How did Debussy’s contemporaries receive a work like La Mer?

DWH: Debussy completed the work in 1905. There is a review by Philip Hale from a 1907 Boston performance – certainly the first in the States. Hale seems at a loss of words to explain the work. He describes it as a “remarkable tour de force” and compares it with an “essay in a strange language”, overthrowing all theories how music should be written, and impossible to analyze. The work did not cause a scandal like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring but people were stunned. It didn’t fit into molds or categories they knew.

What does it mean that you gather all relevant sources? What are relevant sources?

DWH: There are the obvious sources: the autograph, proofs for the first edition marked by the composer, the first edition, sets of parts used under the composer or under the composer’s auspices. But then I ask questions, lots of questions: Do I really have all relevant sources?

For example: I knew from letters and from the performance history of La Mer that Debussy conducted the English premiere in February 1908 – his first official conducting gig! So I asked myself, where are the orchestral parts used for this performance? I searched for the Henry Wood Collection because Sir Henry Wood was the conductor at Queen‘s Hall and was a strong supporter of Debussy’s music. It was he who had rehearsed La Mer with the orchestra before Debussy’s arrival in London. And eventually I found Henry Wood’s score which is marked up all over with all kinds of instructions in blue – and nearly every other color. On the first page it says: “All marks are Debussy’s own, these are the changes he made when directing the work for the first time, at Queens Hall Symphony Concert on 1st February 1908.” The score even includes the exact timing of the movements – Henry Wood was notorious for sitting with his stop-watch at performances. This and other evidence substantiates that Debussy tended to have his works played faster than we know them today. This shows that a source, which no one knew of but which would certainly have been considered a non-relevant secondary source, can become a very valuable primary source.

So one question leads to another and then another. I start digging around. I go to libraries and archives. More than once I have found a source that the library did not know it had or didn’t understand its relevance. For example, with the help of the aforementioned Henry Wood score I was able to identify the score of La Mer which Debussy had sent to Henry Wood with some changes and French markings; it was from this score that Henry Wood marked up his above mentioned score and translated the French into English. The British Library and scholars didn’t know all this and the Henry Wood score was able to clarify matters.

So I ask questions and try to find plausible answers. I work like a detective but without the Sherlock Holmes hat.

 What is your primary goal with your editions?

DWH: Creating a reliable musical text is one important aspect of my work. I want to enable today’s musicians to understand what Debussy meant by his notation. But this goes beyond writing down the correct notes. Music of course, only exists when it is performed, when it sounds. So I want to know how the music was played. I read about performances, reviews, comments by contemporaries. I want to know which performances the composer liked and which ones he loathed. It gives me a clearer idea of what his sound ideal was. Debussy conducted his works frequently, often not out of choice, but motivated by financial need and sometimes because other conductors were over-challenged dealing with his compositions. Alfredo Casella remembered in 1933 Debussy saying: “When I have to conduct I am ill before, during and after.”

These aspects of performance practice are an important part of my editions. I want to inform conductors of the number of strings Debussy and his contemporaries used, what instruments the musicians played, what kind of strings they used, how pianists used the pedals, etc.

With this perspective, the assessment of sources undergoes a shift: In the past dominant relevance was assigned to autographs and first editions; now, performance parts and textual sources gain a new weight.

Is there such a thing as a “final, definitive edition”?

DWH: No, there is not, for two reasons: for one, we continue to discover relevant sources as described before. It is then a publisher’s responsibility to update editions.

And secondly, composers treated their scores in a freer way than we often tend to think; they adapted their works to specific performance situations, they added, deleted, re-orchestrated, you name it. In my editions I strive to document these changes as each one of them has its own validity. Rather than providing a supposedly final version, I want to enable musicians to decide for themselves which version they wish to play.

A good example is the famous discussion about the so-called fanfare section in La Mer. Debussy composed a short fanfare-like transition in the 3rd movement played by the horns and trumpets which appears in the first edition. Later Debussy deleted a part of this fanfare section, but left the other part intact. However, in a later printing of the work the fanfare section was deleted altogether. Nevertheless, after its excision many conductors reinserted it because they felt it was structurally important. So in other words, an alternate performance practice tradition was established that goes back to Debussy‘s first version of the work.

In my edition the fanfare is re-inserted but in small print and brackets for those who wish to include it.

 You must have gotten to know Debussy quite well through all your research. What kind of person was he?

DWH: I “met” an unpretentious man. In an article of October 1913 published in “The Sun”, he is described by someone who attended a
“Debussy tea”, an afternoon with the master, as “absolutely free of mannerisms and perfectly natural, a most unaffected man, at his best when talking to children.” Nice, isn’t it?

Douglas Woodfull-Harris is presently editing Debussy’s Works for Violin and Piano.

Stay tuned.

1 Response to “The Excitement of Editing Debussy’s Works: Interview with Bärenreiter Editor Douglas Woodfull-Harris”

  1. 1 Michael Mermagen September 4, 2018 at 7:26 am

    Another thought about the left hand pizz indication in the cello sonata: Cellists know the difficulty of making an open C string “speak” in a pp dynamic, even with our modern Tungsten wrapped strings. The type of strings used 100 years ago would have likely been even more difficult to achieve a quality sound in this instance. A technique that cellists use to remedy this is to left hand pizz a string to start it vibrating just as or before drawing the bow on the string. We also have an accent marked with the left hand pizz and the motivic material that previously started on a syncopated beat after the open C note to consider in the decision. Mike

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