Exams, Practising, Repertoire, Students

How to play…. ‘Petit Mystère’

This beautiful miniature is a wonderful introduction to the impressionistic music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and even the early compositions of Olivier Messiaen. The composer, Simone Plé, was contemporary with all three composers. She published two volumes of music for children.

The title gives a clue to the mood and atmosphere of this music, as well as the composer’s clear dynamic markings, the tempo and the instruction très chante et expressif (‘very singing and expressive’). Touch is essential in this piece: Debussy’s piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”, and you need a gentle, oblique attack. Lightening the forearms and wrists will help produce a good cantabile sound.

Although impressionistic, and scattered with fermatas (pauses), pulse is crucial, so be strict with tempo and count throughout. Drill the piece so that it remains strictly in time, and then let it relax. There are opportunities for expressive rubato (literally “stolen time”, or a slackening or pulling out of tempo) but these need to be well-judged.

To ensure smooth transitions between the chords, following the fingering scheme exactly. For example, in bar 10, the right hand chords should be 4-2, 3-1, 2, 4-2. In fact, all the notes lie easily under the fingers here and it is really only a matter of “walking” the fingers between the chords. The pedal can also be used here to enhance both legato playing and atmosphere. Also, at the end to help sustain the tied notes.

I am teaching this to only one student currently, an adult who has a liking for this type of music. He made the following comments about his study of it, which are worth noting:


  • Chords
  • Co-ordination between hands
  • Anticipation
  • Hand positions – at times, very close together which feels “unnatural”
  • Ambiguous harmonies which do not resolve as expected

He feels that the suspended harmonies are the “secret ingredient” in this piece.

For further listening, I would recommend:

  • Debussy – La fille aux cheveux de lin, Hommage à Rameau, Clair de Lune
  • Szymanowski – Mazurka No. 1 from Opus 50
  • Messiaen – Prelude no. 2


Debussy – Claire de lune



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