Deciphering Debussy’s Markings Inspires New Thinking in Other Pieces

Notation is only the very beginning of musical interpretation in Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano, and markings alone leave a great deal to be imagined.

By Clare Monfredo | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano is a fleeting journey (about 11 minutes) through an unusual range of human passions and states of mind. Titled before publication as “Pierrot fait fou avec la lune” (“Pierrot, angry at the moon”), the piece comprises three attacca movements evoking a narrative sequence for the commedia dell’arte persona of Pierrot. The music shifts rapidly between moods, from lofty, solemn, and proud to melancholic, tentative, and lyrical to wild and drunk. Though there are many remarkable aspects of the piece, this breadth of moods evoked in startlingly quick succession is exceptional in the classic cello repertory.

Clare Monfredo is a New York–based cellist who has appeared in many top festivals, including the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, and teaches at Hunter College. She is a member of the Sprechgesang Institute artist collective.
Piece: Sonata for Cello and Piano
Composer: Claude Debussy
Year Composed: 1915
Edition: Durand, 1915 (public domain)


The first time I learned this piece, I had the good fortune to play it with my good friend Yvonne Chen, with whom I had collaborated frequently in graduate school. What was surprising was that, despite our comfort in working together, the piece was not at all comfortable to play. Apart from its technical difficulty, the score felt finicky—everything had to be just so, whether it be the coordination between cello and piano parts, placement of the bow between fingerboard and bridge, or even the length of pizzicati.

Maurice Gendron’s 1964 recording of Debussy’s cello sonata (with Jean Françaix, piano).

Debussy marks precise instructions throughout the piece. In the musical directions you find Fantasque et léger (whimsical and light); ironique; arraché (snatch); and volubile (voluble, meaning a person talking incessantly). The types of sound specified for the cello include frequent use of sul tasto, pizzicato with dots versus tenuti versus dots plus a wedge. Even dynamics are marked with words instead of simple symbols: decrescendi alone are marked delicatissimo; sempre; with glissando; molto; and, my favorite, estinto, or extinct. Indeed, these many instructions might seem excessive. Why are there so many? What is the practical difference between molto versus sempre versus estinto?


I would offer that these instructions do more than simply pile on things to translate (e.g., French and Italian to musical ideas and physical execution). What Debussy exhibits in this piece is not exclusive to his music but perhaps simply more explicit in his writing: Notation is only the very beginning of musical interpretation, and markings alone leave a great deal to be imagined. Who is to say that a hairpin without an extra descriptor can’t be molto, delicatissimo, or even estinto? As seen in this short piece of music, even the seemingly modest inclusion of a few words opens up entire realms of figurative or emotive possibility behind something as ordinary as a decrescendo.

In music schools, it is standard for students to be instructed to manifest the musical language of each composer—for instance, Debussy doesn’t sound like Brahms orRachmaninoff or Beethoven—and that a performer should approach scores of each composer differently, in accordance with the composer’s musical vocabulary. Yet in playing Debussy, I feel inspired to re-examine how I interpret scores of other composers, and perhaps even reimagine other composers’ musical directions. When in Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata could there be a delicatissimo decrescendo, where in Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas might there be a moment of estinto? This is why I find playing recitals of markedly different composers, moreover of multiple styles, so important: In studying a piece like Debussy’s Cello Sonata, the imaginative invocation of expression encourages me look for those ideas and that range elsewhere, in entirely different pieces. 


This provocation does not travel one way. Rachmaninoff, Shaw, and certainly many other composers (and players) have opened up new possibilities for how I interpret Debussy in turn. For performers in music school, it can seem intimidating to try something without the express permission or authorization of a teacher, much less a deceased composer—I can personally attest to having felt this artistic block. That said, new interpretation borne of cross-pollinating influences is mainly why I get so much out of returning to pieces like Debussy’s Cello Sonata time and again, and why I believe we may have much more to learn from both well-trodden and new music. Yes, the markings on the page are important, but precisely because they can delineate the negative space—what the notation does not say. This is where the musician’s imagination can take flight. Debussy invites us to picture a decrescendo as an extinction or as a petal alighting upon the ground. This is a powerful view not just for making the Cello Sonata come to life in myriad forms, but for how to breathe life into any piece of music.

What Clare Monfredo Plays

Instrument Lawrence Wilke cello
Bow Alfred Lamy
Strings Jargar
Case Gewa