Mr Ericourt and the Theory of the Half Circle


I LOVE French music — especially that which is written for the piano. Mr Ericourt and the Theory of the Half Circle sounds like the title of an Agatha Christie novel. No, it’s a concept of how we might deal with the shaping of musical sound — a concept which eluded me for YEARS. More on that later…

Danielle Ericourt and Claude Debussy

Danielle Ericourt and Claude Debussy

During my first two years of college I had the great good fortune to study with French pianist Daniel Ericourt (1903-1998). At that time (in the early 1980’s) Mr Ericourt was on the tail end of an illustrious performing career which began as a protege of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) while in his teens and took him all over Europe and North and South America.

I’d like to feature some selections from Mr Ericourt’s complete recording of Debussy’s music for solo piano (first released on the Kapp label in 1960-62 and then re-released on Ivory Classics in 2003 as a 100th anniversary celebration of Mr Ericourt’s birth) in addition to talking about Mr Ericourt as a teacher, in particular his aforementioned “theory of the half circle.”

Indeed, I recall Mr Ericourt sharing with me that he had been a playmate of Debussy’s daughter, Chou Chou, and had for all intents and purposes become a part of the Debussy household during his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. Debussy composed his Children’s Corner Suite for Chou Chou and Mr Ericourt had fond remembrances of hearing this music for the first time and of being an early champion of it.

Mr Ericourt brought a straight-forward physicality to his playing, but with a certain whimsical “elan” and wonderful sense of color and sensitivity to changing textures (not necessarily in keeping with the “String of Pearls” approach to piano playing which was endemic to the French School which largely developed during the 19th Century in the music of Saint-Saens, Faure, etc., and prized a light transparency of touch). He would always talk about “color and clarity, color and clarity!” His recording of the Prelude from Debussy’s suite Pour le piano highlights his vibrantly physical sound (and is just plain fun to listen to) as does his interpretation of Debussy’s Masques (a particular favorite of mine).

There was also a mercurial quality to Mr Ericourt’s playing which spoke to me as a young pianist. He would sometimes talk about the imagination creating “worlds beyond this world”. His playing of Debussy’s prelude Les fees sont d’esquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) pulls back the curtain to a realm of the magical world while his Poisson d’or (or Goldfish from Debussy’s Book Two of Images) explores the composer’s seeming obsession with the movement of water and of the creatures who live in it.

Now to Mr Ericourt’s Theory of the Half-Circle

Truth be told, I never understood what he was talking about — even though Mr Ericourt would constantly mention this concept and talk about it in various ways. It was simply beyond me at the time, to my great frustration. I did, however, listen keenly to his playing and was even allowed to sit in his studio and listen to him practice in preparation for upcoming recitals. Being invited to hear him practice was one of the most valuable experiences I had as a student — and the experience has remained with me ever since.

Fast-forward about twenty years…

I was listening to a performance of Debussy’s orchestral tone poem La Mer (The Sea) and was thinking of Mr Ericourt. Suddenly, it came to me — I finally got it! French Impressionistic music seeks to create a three-dimensional soundscape, often by layering sounds on top of each other. Within this soundscape, the beginnings and endings of musical phrases often dovetail from one to the next, creating what might be described as a series of half circle phrase shapes in the music. While the beginnings and endings of large phrase groups are generally articulated clearly, it’s this dovetailing, half-circular effect which creates a sense of pliability and freedom in the music.

While this concept is by no means limited to French Impressionstic music, it does provide a valuable means of working within this sound world. I continue to be deeply indebted to Mr Ericourt for his generosity and kindness — and to his opening a new world of music to me that I didn’t know existed. His mentorship brought me to the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina — which then introduced me to Deborah Sobol (who was to become another strong musical presence in my life) and led me to Boston and, eventually, to Chicago. Powerful ripples in the water created by others lead us forward in our lives.

I’ll leave you with two items: First, Mr Ericourt once told me that one of the proudest non-musical moments of his life was his role as an extra in the Sydney Poitier movie A Raisin In The Sun (apparently, he was an extra in that film who sat on a terrace reading a newspaper — go figure) and, second, Mr Ericourt’s recording of my very favorite work of Debussy, L’Isle joyeuse (Isle of Joy). This work has brought me nothing but joy in my life. I hope it brings you some, too.


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Rick Ferguson