Les chevaux de bois
In this masterclass, Professor François Le Roux and student Tomoyo Harada work on the song Les chevaux de bois by French composer Claude Debussy, a piece written in 1886 as part of a cycle of songs for piano and voice.
Firstly, Tomoyo must work on her diction. Since she is not a francophone, she must pay attention to her pronunciation of words like “tournez” so that it can be heard and understood.
The tempo is quite lively, expressive, and childish -- and must be respected. The music was likely written by Debussy as a souvenir from the Paris fairs he attended. Professor Le Roux also advises his student to drink water and breathe, to not drop her intonation too soon, and to be aware of the piano accompaniment.
Working on diction.
Understanding and following Debussy’s directions
Staying in the tempo.
Breathing techniques and staying hydrated.
Evoking the childish and playful nature of this piece.
This song, written in 1886 and 1887 by French composer Claude Debussy and inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poems, is part of a suite for piano and voice called the “Ariettes oubliées”.
All likely composed in either Rome or Paris, the suite was published in 1903 and thus bringing back Verlaine’s texts into the spotlight. The combination of Debussy’s music and Verlain’s text was publicly very well received
The piece Les chevaux de bois is an homage to the many Parisian fairs and circuses that Debussy went to as a child and evokes a lively, spirited, and childlike character.
Aim for excellence! You can improve your skills with expert advice. Download the annotated sheet music of this voice masterclass. Please note that this piece has been annotated in accordance to Francois Le Roux’s feedback and comments.
He has been awarded the grade of "Chevalier" in the French National Order of Les Arts et Lettres in 1996.
François Le Roux began studying vocals with François Loup, now a teacher at Peabody-Baltimore, at the age of nineteen. Later, he continued to study under Vera Rosza and Elisabeth Grümmer at the Opéra Studio, Paris.
A member of the Lyon Opera Company from 1980 to 1985, he has since been a guest at all the major European opera houses and festivals, as well as renowned American opera venues: Santa Fé (NM), Los Angeles Opera, New Orleans Opera, and Colon Buenos Aires (Argentina). His operatic repertoire is immense, from Monteverdi to David Lang. Named “Mr. Mélodie” by American critics, François Le Roux gives numerous recitals accompanied by such renowned names as Graham Johnson, Roger Vignoles, Christian Ivaldi, Olivier Godin, and Jeff Cohen. He conducts masterclasses dedicated to the interpretation of French songs and recital repertoire around the world: Orford and Lachine Academy (Québec, Canada), Vancouver (BC, Canada), Minneapolis Song Source Festival (USA), Sibelius Academy Helsinki (Finland), Kyoto Société Mélodie Française (Japan), Central Conservatory of Music Beijing (China), Association Mélodie Française (Seoul, South Korea), and the Académie Ravel de Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France).
Moreover, he is the Artistic Director and Founder of the Académie Francis Poulenc Tours, where every year since 1997, students have the opportunity to learn the interpretation of French Song. What’s more, Le Roux organized the “French Song Concert Seasons” of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris between 1997 and 2002.
He has been awarded the grade of “Chevalier” in the French National Order of “Les Arts et Lettres” in 1996, and was selected as "Musical Personality of the Year, 1997" by the French Critics Union. He has been a vocal teacher at the National Music Conservatoire in Paris (CNSMDP), and is now teaching at the Ecole normale de Musique de Paris Alfred Cortot, where he is developing the exclusive French Vocal Art Certificate.
Claude Debussy was born in 1862, and is considered the originator and foremost representative of musical impressionism. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10 and never stopped pursuing music, first as a pianist and then as a composer. The parallel fifths, the cancellation of sensitive notes, tonal ambiguity, modal scales, and extended chords, among other things, are elements masterfully used by Debussy and serve to make his music true masterpieces recognized throughout the world. Debussy is one of the most important composers in history, and his influence exceeds even the limits of "classical music.”
In 1880, he began to compose music for the piano and give piano lessons. Later, he enrolled in Ernest Guiraud’s composition class, where he also began working as an accompanist in Victorine Moreau-Sainti’s singing classes. During this period in his life, Debussy struggled financially, but he began to cultivate his life. He explored other types of music and art forms, such as attending a Javanese gamelan performance at the Universal Exposition of 1889, discovering Mussorgsky, and befriending fellow musician and composer Ernest Chausson. Debussy’s career as a composer is closely linked to his relationship with Symbolist and Parnassian poets: Stéphane Mallarmé being an essential figure. These influences, together with the renewal of Impressionist painting, were aspects that pushed him towards the search for an original and personal artistic path. “I've had enough of music, of the same everlasting landscape; I want to see a Manet and hear some Offenbach,” he wrote while in Rome.
In a sad turn of events, Debussy was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and was operated on in 1915. He was never able to recover the fullness of his strength. He finished his Violin Sonata in March 1917, and three other sonatas remained unrealized. His last concert appearance was at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in September 1917, where he played the Violin Sonata with Gaston Poulet. He died in Paris six months later.
At the Conservatoire, he acquired classical knowledge: the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuman, Handel, and Liszt. Later on, he would recognize the artistic mastery of the Group of Five, which was made up of contemporary Russian composers (he acquired his taste for ancient and oriental modes from the Russians); the Japanese gamelan, and Chopin's music. Inspired by international art and culture, Claude Debussy’s music are masterpieces celebrated all around the world.
Photo credit: BNF Gallica