Throughout this piece, Debussy writes that certain notes are to be extended from measure to measure, e.g.,

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but there's a problem here. Note that I'm a beginner on piano.

My hands aren't insanely huge, so there are really one one of two things that I think I could do.

1) Focus on holding the dotted half notes and pedal to the end of the fourth bar of the system.

i.e., use the pedal as follows:

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As you can see above, what holding the pedal here does is give this sound that all of the notes, as they are played, are held until the pedal is released.

2) Grace note the lowest note, and use the sostenuto (middle) pedal on the lowest note while holding the pedal. Release the pedal on the fourth bar of the system but hold the sostenuto pedal.

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How do experienced pianists handle the pedaling in this case?

2 Answers 2


This is one of those things that makes Debussy really hard, and not really appropriate for a beginner despite the slow tempo. Debussy was an excellent pianist, and it seems that he leaned on his ability as a performer and didn't worry about the notation that much. His piano music is full of places where what's written doesn't match what he intended (we have piano rolls of him playing to corroborate this), maybe most famously the completely unmarked double/half time tempo changes in La cathédrale engloutie. In this case, as it's written, there's really not a good way to achieve what the notes say. It should also be noted that Debussy did not have a sostenuto pedal.

I would suggest ignoring the tie on the low G flat. Pedal the whole first measure and clear it on the bar line.

  • 1
    The sostenuto pedal was invented (in France) back in 1844, and Steinway started to manufacture it in 1876 (when Debussy was only 16 years old), but AFAIK there is nothing in Debussy that explicitly requires its use.
    – user19146
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 23:50
  • Somewhere I have read that Ricardo Viñes, the virtuoso pianist who was a friend of Debussy, might have had a piano with a sostenuto pedal. But I think that @MattPutnam is right in that Debussy never owned a piano with one.
    – Peter
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 9:36

Probably, you are missing the fact that Debussy was writing for a full size acoustic grand piano, not for a small upright or a digital piano that doesn't have a good implementation of the sustain pedal function.

On a concert grand, the bass strings have enough energy that a quick up-and-down movement of the pedal has very little effect. A quick pedal change can damp the notes around middle C and higher, but leave the bass note sounding.

Since the low D and G in the first bass chord fit with the harmony after the pedal change, it's not very important how well they "survive" the quick pedal change. Debussy's notation that doesn't show them being sustained is clearer to read.

You can use the sostenuto pedal if you want, but I don't think it's what Debussy meant. Playing the lowest note on its own first, just so you can "fire" the sostenuto pedal, interrupts the rhythm of the 16th notes and contradicts the "Mouvt" instruction.


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