Syrinx-by Debussy Rhythmic Teaching Edition

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Part Number:Syrinx
By Kathryn Blocki and Laurel Ewell
The first six (oversized) pages of this edition systematically teach students how to play Syrinx with rhythmic integrity. In many instances the teacher and student will play through the composition as a rhythmic duet to reinforce the divisions and subdivisions of the beat. Pages 7-8 contain just the solo, with the breath marks from the 1913 Brussel's manuscript clearly marked and all other breaths in parentheses. Because it is on oversized paper the fast moving notes are much simpler to read than previous editions. Playing and teaching Syrinx has never been so easy! Additionally, an article by Laurel Ewell explains the text of the melodrama for which Syrinx was written. Each phrase of Syrinx was written to describe or portray the corresponding text. This knowledge is invaluable in understanding how Debussy intended the piece to be played. This edition is licensed through the Theodore Presser Co, with permission by Jobert.Syrinx 101

Syrinx 101 By Walfrid Kujala

While taking note of the one-hundred-first anniversary of the premiere of Claude Debussy’s Syrinx, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend a publication that ought to be in every flutist’s relearn-it-now library:  Syrinx for solo flute by Claude Debussy, Rhythmic Teaching Edition by Kathy Blocki and Laurel Ewell (www.BlockiFlute.com).  If you saw my Oct. 2013 article, Syrinx Gone Wild, you may have been surprised at the multitude of rhythmic blunders I noted as a result of my YouTube survey of over sixty Syrinx performances (at least half of them by professional players).  Many of those errors were illustrated in my composite notation, five bars of which are shown below.  (My composite “error” version of the whole piece can be found in the Flute Talk Online of Oct. 2013). 

Blocki’s teaching edition of Syrinx cleverly subdivides each beat of the music into two, three or four related background rhythms on separate lines in score form, and with the original notation always printed on the bottom line for reference.  In the very first beat, for example, the top line has three B flat sixteenths followed by one A natural sixteenth, and the line below combines the three B flats into a dotted eighth followed by an A natural sixteenth.  Close attention to the placement of that A natural will help you gain expressive sounding, unrushed thirty-second notes.  Playing a continuous all-thirty-second note version of the first two beats is also helpful. (By far, the most common error in Syrinx performances is the consistent rushing of the two thirty-second notes as if they were grace notes.  They are an integral part of the thematic structure, not mere ornaments.)  Then later in the fourth bar, differentiating properly between the thirty-seconds of the first beat and the triplet sixteenths of the second and third beats is neatly accomplished after careful practicing of each of the upper three lines.  

The most interesting rhythm is in the penultimate bar with its descending five-note whole-tone scale spread evenly over two beats.  By mentally dividing the first beat quarter-note into five equal sixteenths, as Blocki specifies, you can get a very accurate feeling for the values of the descending eighth notes and still be able to control Debussy’s tres retenu marking.  But don’t spoil the continuity of this final phrase by taking a disconcerting breath at the bar-line like too many flutists do.

I have myself practiced the entire Blocki rhythmic teaching edition several times, ending up even more confident about my rhythm and phrasing--a very satisfying feeling.  No matter how certain you may be about your rhythm, playing the Blocki version will give you a very nice check-up opportunity--and perhaps trigger a few wake-up calls along the way.

The six separate pages of the Rhythmic Teaching Edition are attractively engraved on durable, heavy-stock, legal size paper, printed on one side only, and can be spread out over two music stands.  The original performance version of Syrinx is printed separately on two pages, and there are three other pages, one containing guidance and hints from Blocki about how to practice the rhythmic teaching edition, and two pages of excellent program notes by Laura A. Ewell: “The Relationship Between Music and Poetry in Syrinx (La Flûte de Pan)”.  Ewell’s essay gives valuable historical and poetical insights, and is well-worth studying.

It would be nice if Blocki were to design a similar rhythmic teaching edition for the often disfigured Varèse Density 21.5.  I did something along those lines for my students a few years ago by designing a CD audio click-track that outlined the alternating duple and triple rhythms plus the changes of tempo, on top of which I also added some vocals in the form of announcing some of the critical bar numbers in case a player got lost.  All the students seemed to benefit from the experience, and were able to perform the piece with much better rhythmic precision after being weaned off the click-track.

An extremely fascinating and authentic source of Debussy’s own thoughts and attitudes concerning performances of his own compositions is conveniently accessible.  Just google the following: “A piano method by Claude Debussy”.  Karstein Djupdal, a Norwegian pianist and composer, is the author of this compilation of illuminating quotes.  In his introduction Djupdal writes:  “For the pianists who want a better understanding of the performance of Debussy’s piano music, it is interesting to get to know the ideas that Debussy himself had.  I have attempted to construct the piano method that Debussy could have written.  That is, the ideas I present here are not my ideas about playing Debussy, but should as far as possible be Debussy’s own ideas.  Fortunately, we have a lot of sources which, taken together, can give us a good indication of how Debussy wanted his music played.”

Djupdal’s sources are well-known pianists who studied with Debussy at one time or another—Ricardo Vines, Marguerite Long, E. Robert Schmitz, Maurice Dumesnil, George Copeland and Louis Laloy.  Their observations are neatly categorized, as shown by the following chapter headings:  accuracy of interpretation, artistic license of the performer, musical imagination and atmosphere, musical expression, rhythm and rubato, dynamics, the visual performance in a concert.  (Other chapters are devoted to more specific areas of piano technique such as touch and pedaling.)

Meanwhile, on a return visit to my YouTube” laboratory” recently, I discovered a very exciting addition to the short list of exemplary Syrinx performances, this one by French flutist Mathilde Calderini.  She plays with a beautiful, luminous tone, tasteful expression, and very good rhythm (except for a 7/8 conversion of bars 17-18).  The 25-year old Calderini won 1st Prize at the 8th Kobe International Competition in 2013.  Her YouTube recital also includes a stunning performance of the Faure Fantasie.

And finally, in case you might be surfing the internet for Syrinx references, you’ll likely find, among many other things, these four surprising definitions of syrinx:  a syringe; a set of panpipes; the lower larynx or voice organ in birds; a pathological tube-shaped cavity in the brain or spinal cord. 

Graecum est, non legibur (“It’s all Greek to me.”)



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Private Instructor
I have taught this piece many times, but found the background about the composer's intent most helpful in shaping the student's emotional presentation. It must have worked, her score was 1/2 point from perfect!
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Reviewed by: (Verified Buyer)  from Jeffersonville, Indiana. on 2/8/2016
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