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Colette Maze, pianist who started recording in her 80s, dies at 109

A photo provided via Maze family shows pianist Colette Maze at age 18.VIA MAZE FAMILY/NYT

When French composer Claude Debussy died at his home in Paris in 1918, he probably had no idea that one of his youngest fans lived just a few blocks away. Colette Saulnier, not yet 4, was already learning the rudiments of music, and even at that age she was drawn to the work of her famous neighbor.

“I love these climates where you have to create an atmosphere, a daydream,” Colette Maze, as she later became known, said in a 2021 interview with the website Pianote. “I’m connected with Debussy because he corresponds to my deepest sensibility.”

Ms. Maze would go on to become an accomplished pianist and teacher. But it was only in the late 1990s, when she was over 80, that her son persuaded her to begin recording commercially.

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What followed was one of the most surprising second acts in classical music history: seven albums, largely but not exclusively the music of Debussy, and a fan base drawn as much to Ms. Maze’s exquisite finger work as to her sheer, irrepressible joy, which shone through in interviews with French television and in videos posted to her Facebook page.

“As soon as I get up, I start playing the piano to connect with the forces of life,” she told Pianote. “It’s a habit. It’s always been that way. I don’t need to motivate myself, it’s natural. It’s like an automatic function.”

Ms. Maze, who was widely considered the world’s oldest recording pianist, died Nov. 19 in the same Paris apartment where she had lived since she was 18, with views of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine River. She was 109.

Her son, Fabrice Maze, confirmed the death.

Colette Claire Saulnier was born in Paris on June 16, 1914, a month before the beginning of World War I. Her father, Léon Saulnier, managed a fertilizer factory, and her mother, Denise (Piollet) Saulnier, was a homemaker.

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She grew up surrounded by music. Her mother, who played violin, and her maternal grandmother, who played piano, gave concerts in the Saulnier home, and chords wafted in from a piano-playing neighbor. By 4 she was learning to play.

She aspired to be a concert pianist, but her parents — who were strict and, according to her, miserly with their love — disapproved. When she applied to the performance track at the École Normale de Musique, a new conservatory founded by Alfred Cortot, her parents refused to let her stay home alone to practice for her audition.

Her score wasn’t quite high enough, but she still qualified for the teaching track. She studied under Cortot and Nadia Boulanger, who tutored some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, including Daniel Barenboim, Virgil Thomson and Philip Glass.

Ms. Maze later credited the Cortot method of playing, with its emphasis on relaxation, for her ability to continue at the piano without suffering the sort of joint stiffening that can strike older pianists.

“If I still play at my age, it is because the teaching of Alfred Cortot and Nadia Boulanger was very flexible and based on improvisation,” she said in a 2018 interview with the newspaper Le Parisien. “He told us that our hand was a diamond at the end of a silk stocking.”

After graduating in 1934, she stayed at the conservatory to teach. When the Germans invaded in 1940, she and a friend fled on bicycles to the deep south of France, where they remained until the end of World War II.

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Back in Paris, she had a relationship with a married man, Hubert Dumas, with whom she had a son, Fabrice. But Dumas left her in 1952.

She married Emile Maze, another musician, in 1958. He died in 1974. Along with her son, she is survived by two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Even after she retired from teaching in 1984, Colette Maze continued to play four hours or more a day. Her son later began encouraging her to record an album, to capture both her talents and the influence of Cortot’s unique methods.

Her first album, a recording of Debussy’s preludes, was released in 2004, the year she turned 90. Three more albums of Debussy followed, as well as three others featuring music from different composers: “104 Years of Piano” (2018), “105 Years of Piano” (2019) and “109 Years of Piano” (2023).

As her discography grew, so did public curiosity, which turned into acclaim as critics praised her technique and her supple interpretations of not just Debussy but also Robert Schumann and Erik Satie, as well as more modern composers like Astor Piazzolla and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

She found even more fame in 2020, when she took to Facebook to share daily comments of good cheer during the darkest days of the pandemic. As restrictions eased, fans streamed to her home, coming from as far as Japan to ask for a brief lesson.

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“I always preferred composers who gave me tenderness,” she told NPR in 2021. “Music is an affective language, a poetic language. In music there is everything — nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams; it’s like a spiritual food.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.