The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

I am very happy to announce a new publication for the Online Academy – a study edition of Debussy’s Prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair).

This is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano, and a piece many pianists choose to play. Despite its apparent simplicity, this short 39-bar piece is actually deceptively difficult to bring off. My enhanced study edition aims to give practical solutions to the numerous problems in pedalling the work poses, together with fingerings and exercises that will make some of the more awkward passages much easier to manage. The study score contains comprehensive footnotes with text and musical examples; there are also short video clips you can view by scanning the QR codes with your phone as you practise.

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. In this, the eighth piece from the first book of Préludes composed around 1910, Debussy is painting a picture of an innocent and naive Scottish girl. He uses conventional diatonic harmony blended in with pentatonic scales, modal cadences as well as parallel chord movement. 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.

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.

The dynamic level of the first half of the piece is predominantly p; after the climax in bar 21 (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 in my study edition 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 under or indeed 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). Here is a practice exercise for this spot, applicable to when the passage comes back towards the end too.

It is always interesting to listen to orchestral transcriptions of piano music when available. This version, arranged by Leopold Stokowski, is full of colour and interest.

How to access this study edition and online resources?

Walkthrough and practice worksheet

Click here to view the walkthrough and practice worksheets on the Online Academy. If you are subscriber then these online resources (including the walk-through and practice worksheets) are available as part of your subscription. Otherwise please click here to find out more about the subscription options.

Annotated Study Edition

If you are a premium subscriber or own our Annotated Study Edition bundle, then the complete study edition (with links to online resources) has been added to your account automatically and can be accessed from the My eBooks section of the Online Academy website. If you aren’t a premium subscriber or don’t own our study edition bundle then you can also purchase it using one of the following links:

  • Annotated Study Edition – click here to purchase for £4.99
  • Annotated Study Edition bundle – click here to purchase a bundle of all five Study Editions plus ongoing updates for £19.99
  • Practising the Piano & Study Edition bundle – click here to purchase a bundle which includes all four volumes of Practising the Piano eBook series and the complete Annotated Study Edition bundle (with  ongoing updates) for £54.99.