Claude Debussy: Harmonic Innovations in Historical

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Columbus State University
CSU ePress
Theses and Dissertations
Claude Debussy: Harmonic Innovations in
Historical and Musical Context
Ford J. Fourqurean
Columbus State University, [email protected]
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Recommended Citation
Fourqurean, Ford J., "Claude Debussy: Harmonic Innovations in Historical and Musical Context" (2014). Theses and Dissertations.
Paper 108.
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Claude Debussy:
Harmonic Innovations in Historical and Musical Context
Ford Fourqurean
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of
Requirements of the CSU Honors Program
for Honors in the degree of
Bachelor of Music
Music Performance
College of the Arts
Columbus State University
Thesis Advisor*
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Dr. Lisa Oberlander
Committee Member
Dr. Ronald Wirt
Honors Committee Member
Dr. Susan Tomkiewicz
Honors Program Director *
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C^Sfr. (Bmdy Ticknor
Claude Debussy's music developed as a product of his environment and
culminated in the creation of a unique harmonic vernacular that permeates the twentieth
century's tonal language. Through a historical and musical context, his early life through
his formative years as a composer will be examined as a natural progression of his
environment. The first section of this work will discuss these developments while the
second part will analyze the structure and form of the Premiere Rhapsodiefor clarinet
and piano to illustrate the culmination of this trajectory.
Claude Debussy's Influences and Harmonic Innovation
Late Romanticism pushed tonality to its breaking point. Composers were forced
to either extend Wagnerian chromatic harmonies to their limits or make a conscious
determination to strike against this path. While composers like Arnold Schoenberg and
the Second Viennese School expanded chromaticism to a completely atonal application
in the creation of the twelve-tone method, other composers forged toward alternatives by
creatively reshaping tonality. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) developed a new treatment of
tonality that would remove "the fixed need for chordal or intervallic resolution, this openended chordal concept resulting in the free play of any chromatic interval above a root,
that makes up the chromatic homophony of Debussy's mature style" (Nadeau 71).
Multiple influences allowed Debussy's transformation from traditional tonal progression
to his new expanded harmony including the infamous Richard Wagner, Russian musical
influence, the French symbolists, and the orientalism that was in vogue throughout Paris.
Debussy's unique ideas stemmed as much from his environment as they developed from
his own genius. Claude Debussy molded these influences to expand and morph the
function of German Romantic harmony and develop his unique style.
Debussy illustrated signs of innovation from an early age. Born on August 22n ,
1862 to Manuel and Victorine Debussy, he suffered from an unstable family life with his
father sparsely present in his early years and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War
(Lesure 1). In his tumultuous home environment, the young eight year old Debussy was
recounted by his sister Adele to "spend 'entire days seated in a chair dreaming" (Roberts
12) with his imagination as "a haven against the ravages outside" (12). In the war's late
days, Victorine and the children sought refuge with her sister-in-law, Aunt Clementine, in
the resort town of Cannes. Aunt Clementine would have a profound influence on young
Debussy by arranging early piano training with a relatively unimportant Italian musician,
Jean Cerutti (Lesure 1). Though he began study while in Cannes, his biggest early
influence resulted from his father's imprisonment in the war. While sentenced to four
years after his capture in the Siege of Paris in 1871, Manuel was able to befriend a fellow
soldier Charles de Sivry. After his sentence was commuted a year later, he arranged
lessons with Sivry's mother, Madame Maute de Fleurville (Roberts 30). While not
actually a pupil of Chopin as she claimed and not a member of the aristocracy, she taught
Debussy for free and with almost a year's training, Debussy gained acceptance into the
Paris Conservatoire (31). From this point, Debussy's quality of education is unquestioned
but the Conservatoire environment's strict methodology would spur his artistic growth
while feeding Debussy's distain toward the conservative approach to harmony.
As young Debussy entered the Conservatoire, his studies imbibed him with a deep
knowledge and understanding of music while allowing him to explore new solutions to
harmony. Debussy began his studies in the class of pianist Antoine Marmontel and
enrolled soon in the rudiments class of Albert Lavignac. While Marmontel maintained
faith in Debussy's potential, the young pianist would never come to fruition as a soloist
and would gain the most invaluable instruction from Lavignac who introduced him to the
works of Richard Wagner and harmonic systems employed outside of Europe (Roberts
35). While most teachers admired his intelligence like the younger Lavignac, more
traditional professors like Emile Durand were skeptical of his carelessness and mischief
and did not appreciate his creative solutions to harmony. As fellow classmate Paul Vidal
would note, Debussy "did not see eye to eye with his teacher [Emile Durand] in the sense
that, instead of coming up with the harmonic realizations which the latter was expecting,
he always went a step further, inventing solutions that were ingenious, elegant, and
delightful but totally unacademic" (Nichols 6). Debussy in his own words would
recognize that:
"[The Conservatoire] wasn't the best time in my life, but it was no more
disagreeable for me than anyone else... The teaching of harmony seems to me
quite misguided. I can assure you I did nothing very remarkable in the harmony
class. It was the custom of my time for the professors to teach their students by a
useless little game that consisted of trying to discover the secrets of a particular
composer's harmony. I humbly must confess that I could never discover them and
it wasn't hard to console myself." (Roberts 37).
This jibe at the conservatoire illustrates Debussy's attitude toward Durand and the strict
atmosphere that repressed his creations. The practice of teaching traditional harmony was
too narrow to encompass the burgeoning composer's creative desires. In these years
between 1871 and 1884 when he would win the Prix de Rome, the musician would begin
his compositional output and would travel beyond the narrow Parisian streets. The
surprising catalyst of these new inspirations and influences would come from two
remarkable associations with Russian aristocrat Madame Nadezhda von Meek and the
more intimate relation to Madame Marie-Blanche Vasnier.
Marmontel was able to acquire work for Debussy during the summers of his
conservatoire career first employed to Madame Marguerite Wilson-Pelouze, the President
of the French Republic's mistress, and later employment as the piano instructor to the
Russian, Madame von Meck's, children in the summers between 1880 and 1883 (Roberts
45). Through his travels to Russia and experience with Tchaikovsky's main benefactor,
he was exposed to Russian music constantly while playing Tchaikovsky with von Meek.
Her son Nicholas recalls how his mother introduced him to all of the 'Kutchka,' a band of
Russian composers, which "produced an unfavorable impression on Debussy," though as
he was exposed "he became better acquainted with Russian music [and] he appreciated
it" (Nichols 17). While the young composer had experienced modality with Lavignac, he
surely absorbed the modality of the Russian five and, while disliking their crafting of
tonality and treatment of harmonic progression, employed these compositional tools later.
In the early 1890s, he would again study Mussorgsky, pouring over his opera Boris
Godunov and actually quoting the work in his Nuages from Nocturnes written between
1897 and 1899 (Roberts 92, 225). As the teenage Debussy quickly transitioned from
adolescence into adulthood, he would become embroiled in a fierce scandal that could
have destroyed his career in the years leading to the Prix de Rome.
At age eighteen, Debussy made the acquaintance of a thirty-two year old amateur
soprano, Madame Marie-Blanche Vasnier. The wife of a wise, well-read Parisian civil
servant, Madame Vasnier had been married for fifteen years at the time Debussy became
accompanist for her amateur voice class in 1881 and, as the young composer became
involved in an affair with Madame Vasnier, Monsieur Vasnier unknowingly welcomed
and supported the young artist that soon became a regular visitor to their home (Roberts
48-51). The affair itself is extremely important in Debussy's early compositional output
and innovation. Passionately dedicated to Madame Vasnier in both a sexual and
emotional context, vocal works written almost exclusively to her dominate the periods
between 1881 and the Prix de Rome in 1884. Most of these compositions are unimportant
in Debussy's creative or innovative output, but a setting of poet Verlaine by Debussy
titled Fetes galantes pour Marie Vasnier and a setting of Stephane Mallarme's
Apparition show early signs of the burgeoning symbolist (Roberts 50). While the young
Debussy was spurred to enter the coveted Prix de Rome by the Vasniers, his affair deeply
concerned those around him. Vidal writes to the extent of Debussy's obsession,
"everything he writes is for her and owes its existence to her... I am sorry to have got
mixed up in it all, and not to have let things take their course. His moral sense is
undeveloped, he's nothing but a sensualist" (Roberts 56-58). After his winning bid for the
Prix de Rome in 1884, he almost resigned the award for fear of leaving Paris and his
beloved Marie. The young sensualist began to develop toward his innovative new style
that would start to blossom after the emotional isolation of his travel to Rome and into the
late days of his Roman "spring."
Debussy's travel to Rome in 1885 was marked by extreme homesickness, distaste
for Rome itself, and a period of experimentation that allowed his sensualist nature to
manifest in his composition. While in Rome, Debussy was required to write "the
statutory envois, the symphonic and vocal odes laureates had to produce annually for the
Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris" (Roberts 65). In his experimentation on a later lost
work Zuleima, he claimed; "those great stupid lines bore me to death... My music would
be in danger of sinking under the weight" and went on to write "it is not at all the sort of
music I want to write. I'm after music that is supple and concentrated enough to adapt
itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul and to the whims of reverie" (65). Debussy begins
to form and codify his own tastes and beliefs. This formation of ideology would evolve
into his more delicate, mature style in later years, transforming from youthful spirit to a
new creative desire. In his final envoi from Rome, criticism from the Academie addresses
a major shift in the rhetoric toward the young artist's work and harmonic construction
"Monsieur Debussy.. .has a pronounced tendency- too pronouncedtoward the exploration of the strange. One has the feeling of musical colour
exaggerated to the point where it causes the composer to forget the importance of
precise construction and form. It is strongly to be hoped that he will guard against
this vague impressionism, which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in
works of art" (Roberts 66).
In his last Prix de Rome work Printemps, Debussy's work begins its association with
impressionism in critical review. While his music to this point has been constructed from
impressionist texts and he has absorbed the prevailing culture of his native Paris, this
point seems to signify a compositional and rhetorical shift that will lead to his greatest
compositions. The Academie also illustrates Debussy's chief development of bringing
color and texture to the forefront of compositional construction. As the composer stands
on this precipice, his growth during the late 1880s into the 1890s culminated from his
exposure to orientalism, his ever-changing view on Wagner, and the profound influence
of his bohemian lifestyle including his lifelong friendship with Erik Satie.
Orientalism affected the output of the great symbolists of the mid to late 1800s.
Debussy's compositions were not immune to Asian influence, like most avenues of
literature and visual art during this period. While exotic themes manifested in art forms
throughout the renaissance and classical periods, the Parisian fervor for Asian goods was
in full swing by the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1864, Carl Engel's book
The Music of the Most Ancient Nations contains the first reported use of pentatonic as a
"term in English and apparently predated the emergence of analogous terms in other
European languages" (Day-O' Connell 225). Debussy was exposed to these exotic
glimpses from an early age through the Parisian market stalls selling small trinkets from
the 'orient.' French fascination with Asia is best illustrated through the exotic flair of the
1889 Paris Exhibition. While this example stems from later in Debussy's compositional
formation, the young composer had experience earlier with Lavignac and shows an
obsession with collecting small trinkets; Gabriel Pierne recalling how while in Rome in
1885 Debussy "spent his time with antiques dealers and made a clean sweep of tiny
Japanese objects which entranced him" (Nichols 5). This expression later took hold of the
post-Prix de Rome Debussy after his exposure to "'exotic' sounds of the Javanese
gamelan and Vietnamese theatre" during the 1889 Paris Exhibition that would "arouse
wistful reminiscences in Debussy's writing, and one piece- Pagodes, from the piano
collection Estampes- would bear the gamelan's unmistakable influence even at the
remove of over a decade" (Day O'Connell 226). Other less apparent applications appear
in rhythmic treatment and polyrhythms of his masterpieces throughout the 1890s. The
permeating presence of the Javanese gamelan and oriental aesthetic of the exhibition
would remain a constant influence hidden beneath his distinctly French palate. Debussy's
French nationality would play a significant role in his conflicting relationship of love and
hatred that he shared with the music of Richard Wagner.
Wagner's deep impact on Debussy began in childhood, crafted by strong
nationalist undertones. The relationship between the French and Germans in Debussy's
early childhood was marred by the Franco-Prussian war and fierce reparations invoked by
the Germans. The brutality felt in the coming years resulted in the brutal massacres of the
siege of Paris where Manuel would be captured and imprisoned. While France was in no
place to refuse surrender, "a desire for revenge -revanche- was a strong undercurrent in
French politics as well as in the collective consciousness of the people" (Robert 27).
Along with the already strong sense of French nationalism that echoed defeat, Parisians
took a strict anti-german ideology that would shape education and pedagogy in the
Conservatoire for many years. Influenced by his father, rebellion against Conservatoire
life, and French nationalism, the young composer would secretly examine Wagner's
scores and quietly share respect for Wagner's craft while searching for a different
treatment of harmony.
Richard Wagner's name carried great weight and gravity in the Debussy
household. As a boy, young Debussy obtained a score of the Tannhauser overture and
secretly poured over it away from his father's ear; his father claming "Wagner wouldn't
be anything if he had been born in France. There's nothing in his music but a lot of
noise... I couldn't hear one passage that came from the heart" (Dumesnil 19). Aside from
his father's bitterness caused by the war, the staunch Frenchman most likely would have
disapproved of the dissonant, heavy chromatic style at a time when the popular style of
Jules Massenet graced Parisian halls. As young Debussy studied at the Conservatoire, he
explored the taboo Wagner "eagerly discuss[ing] it with his friends and teachers"
(Roberts 44) and with Albert Lavignac, a younger more radical professor who would later
publish two books on Wagner. Lavignac's true impact would later be felt in the Prix de
Rome attempts of 1883 and 1884. Debussy's first attempt received harsh criticism for
what "might have been the presence of leitmotifs and the blurring of section breaks in
Debussy's Prix de Rome cantata for 1883, Le Gladiateuf (44). Curbing his own style in
the 1884 bid, his "politically correct tribute to Massenet and Gounod" (55) would allow
him to win. While Wagner's influence in conservatory life germinated, the strict French
school would not accept such unconventional influence. Much later, Wagner's influence
would haunt Debussy's only opera.
As Debussy tackled his Prelude a Vapres-midi d'unfaune and his monumental
Pelleas and Melisande, he searched to separate himself from Wagner's powerful
influence. Deeply involved with the bohemian lifestyle by the early 1890s, Debussy
would live in relative poverty while sharing the drawing rooms of Parisian intellectuals.
During this period, Debussy "was single-mindedly educating himself. He absorbed not
only Tristan and Parsifal, but the novels of Balzac, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and
Flaubert; not only the gamelan music of Indonesia (heard at the Exposition Universelle of
1889), but Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov" while also squandering his meager
earnings on "oriental objets d'art, Pre-Raphaelite prints, [and] Art Nouveau knickknacks" (Roberts 93) to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. While partaking in this day-today existence, he developed a deep friendship with Erik Satie that would last a lifetime.
His Prelude a Vapres-midi d'unfaune of 1892-1894 illustrates several characteristics of
Satie's influence, Satie stating:
"I explained to Debussy how we Frenchmen needed to break away from
the Wagnerian adventure, which did not correspond with our natural aspirations.
And I told him that I was not at all anti-Wagner, but that we needed our own
music- without sauerkraut if possible. Why not make use of the representational
methods of Claude Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and so on? Why not make
a musical transposition of them? Nothing simpler. Are they not alternative means
of expression too?" (Roberts 98).
Debussy seems to take heed of this advice in the faun's composition. The pervasive
imagery, unique colors, and pent-up desire expressed by Mallarme's original text are
conveyed through the flowing, hazy flute solo in the opening, spinning through an
atmospheric treatment of texture and color to evoke the dream-like musings. Debussy
does not try to use Wagnerian leitmotif or treatment to create a program but "aims to
create an impression in the reader's mind in the manner of a dream" (Roberts 103) with
Debussy further stating, "that 'perhaps it's what remains of the dream within the depths
of the faun's flute'" (103). Equally important in the work's construction, Debussy
constructs the form loosely while not following the pacing or structure of the poem itself
(Berman 230). He also treats chromaticism differently from Wagner's works while still
venturing far from tonal or key structures by removing progression to any given key
center. The work is motivically based and constructed modularly, with each section
containing a separate atmosphere or idea. Finally the chords and structures could exist
"freed from the absolute need to articulate functional tonal argument were able to exist as
colored pitch masses" (Nadeau 73). While Satie's advice functions creative impetus, his
next masterwork shows Wagner's shadow while attempting to avoid his influence.
Pelleas et Melisande illustrates Symbolism's deep influence on Debussy's work.
By 1894, the impressionist label infiltrates the common vernacular, but while Debussy
becomes defined by this term, the visual art movement itself has already waned (Roberts
132). After witnessing playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's stage performance of Pelleas et
Melisande, he gained permission from Maeterlinck to write an opera from the play.
Maeterlinck was known in symbolist circles as a legendary figure (Roberts 106). His play
recreates the Tristan legend while setting it in his symbolist light, leaving Debussy with
material that would lead to the "challenge of meeting Wagner on his own ground"
(Roberts 107). Rising to this task, Debussy had to face the difficulty of Wagner's
sexually explicit tragedy while facing it from his more introverted, delicate manner.
While Wagner uses the consummation of Tristan and Isolde's passion and death's grip
glorified, "the Debussy-Maeterlinck version [of] death is a symbol of nothingness and
failure, even though at first it is only the imminence of death that brings passion to life.
Neither Pelleas nor Melisande is transfigured by death: they lose everything and gain
nothing" (108). Debussy's treatment deals with human emotion while letting the
characters portray themselves as intimately human. Debussy expresses much earlier that
in his sensibility, he "would always rather deal with something where the passage of
events is subordinated to a thorough and extended portrayal of human feelings"(l 10)
where "what they fail to articulate is meant to be understood by other means, through
symbols, objects and images either present on stage or alluded to in the dialogue" (111).
While Wagner's powerful, expansive music carries his emotional content to the audience,
Debussy wants the audience to experience his allusions and inferences to understand his
vision. Debussy's use of orchestra contrasted Wagner's writing by creating an opera that
was able to "liberate and concentrate the perception of the harmony. No more subtle
harmonic language than this ha[d] existed, with such extraordinary care devoted to details
of register, interval, modality and harmonic significance" (111). Debussy's intensely
evocative opera culminated in the use of his knowledge and sensibility to craft a
revolutionary style of music.
Claude Debussy's revolutionary compositional innovations changed and
expanded the nature of German Romantic harmony and form. While his unique genius is
undisputedly pervasive in his compositional output, the master sensualist, poet,
symbolist, and musical painter developed as a product of his environment. Despite antiWagnerian sentiment in Paris and the prevailing anti -German sentiment, the young
Debussy would become a product of Wagnerian chromatic harmony. While Parisian to
the core, Debussy used his intimate knowledge of Wagner's composition to first accept
his influence, and then gradually embrace his own compositional treatment. As Debussy
embraced Satie's advice, he was able to turn to a myriad of influences learned through his
self-study of the Kutchka, influence of his professors from Conservatoire training, the
experimentation of his Prix de Rome, his French affinity for the oriental, and arguably his
most important influence, the symbolist poets and artist from which he derived constant
inspiration. Debussy's broad, expansive taste in art, literature, and music culminates in
his own personal style. Through his love of the symbolists and his native Paris, he was
able to break away from the ghost of old Klingsor and strike a new path for tonality.
Many examples of Debussy's work illustrate his treatment of harmony and show the
culmination of these environmental influences in his composition. Structure and form of
the Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano will be analyzed to see these trends.
Structural and Motivic Analysis of Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie
Written as a contest piece for the 1910 Paris Conservatory, Claude Debussy's
Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano remains one of the most important works in
the clarinet repertoire. While composed after the masterworks Prelude a I'apres-midi d'un
faune, Pelleas et Melisande, Nocturnes, and La Mer, the Premiere Rhapsodie shows the
same compositional and structural ideas present in his iconic compositions. Dedicated to
Prosper Mimart, the conservatory's clarinet professor at the time, Debussy later
transcribed the work for full orchestra in 1911. Constructed in the loose form of a
Rhapsody, the work illustrates Debussy's unique style through his treatment of motivic
and structural relationships. A rhapsody by definition is "a musical composition of
irregular form having an improvisatory character" also characterized as "a highly
emotional utterance" or "effusively rapturous or extravagant discourse" (MerriamWebster). Debussy takes multiple elements from his early influence to develop the work.
Unlike his influential predecessor Richard Wagner, Debussy creates the work in different
sound worlds within each section. The major structural differences stem from Debussy's
treatment of harmony. He does not use harmonic progression to drive the composition but
creates each section modularly with loose harmonic pedals and higher tertian harmonies
creating the color and atmosphere of each idea. Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie illustrates
his multiple influences culminating in the genesis of his unique development and
construction of this rhapsody.
The work's larger form consists of four major sections of material that while
separated and distinct, they carry certain relating traits. The introductory material from
measures one through eleven is constructed from a loose pedal f with the notes f- a-flatb-flat (g- b-flat-c in clarinet example in B-flat) in the clarinet comprising the main
motivic material. Debussy sets up the slow dream-like tempo, labeling it Reveusement
lent, dreamily. Inverting this introductory material, Debussy takes the beginning motive
and expands the material in measures eleven to twenty-one. The A section carries the
same characteristics of tempo but with an added triplet rhythmic motor.
Clarinet in Bi>
M> r
v J.
PP doux et penetrant
Figure 1- A section melodic material
It settles loosely in d-flat with d-flat major thirteen chords dominating the texture. From
measure twenty-two to twenty-nine, the Poco mosso marks the beginning of the B
section. Based a half-step up in d, the main motion of the clarinet line comprises the most
prominent melodic idea.
Clarinet in Bb
Figure 2- B section melodic material
Poco mosso
The B clarinet melody contains a radiant, shimmering quality. The larger intervals in both
the clarinet and piano combined with the Poco mosso build a sense of greater motion. At
measure thirty-one, the Scherzando C material briefly appears in a sparsely textured,
impish clarinet part and then quickly spins into the second appearance of A material in
measure thirty-nine.
Clarinet in Bb
Jv ^ uUP
m 0
I ~1
Figure 3- C section hinted in triplet scherzando figure
The transitional material from the end of B reoccurs at the doubled tempo Le double plus
vite. In fifty-one, C material appears in triplet form and transitions from its triple iteration
into a sixteenth-note transformation. The C could also be seen as a section that transitions
and blends the melodic ideas of the A and B with the upcoming D section.
Clarinet in Bb
Moderement anime (Scherzando)
Figure 4- C appearance in sixteenth note form
As Debussy transitions, the key moves from ambiguity to a relatively firm tonal center of
a. He then remains in the C material for a while until he morphs back into the B motive
up a major second in the tonal center of e that settles in the B motive's original center of
d but quickly moves back to the C idea in eighty-three. The fourth major idea appears in
measure ninety-three as Debussy crafts the D section.
Clarinet in Bb
P=PW - ~j
Figure 5- D section material
Mirroring the earlier C motive Scherzando, the chromatic clarinet motive mixes into the
d, e-flat sonority in the middle piano range. Measure 124 brings the return of B idea in
the piano and shifts back to d in 128. The B idea is stated again with the piano doubling
the clarinet an octave lower and then moves to a triplet iteration of the D motive that
melts into measure 152 with a cedez. Throughout this juxtaposition of B and D sections,
Debussy applies a continuous sixteenth-note f-e-flat/f-f rhythmic motor until he begins to
shift in measure 135 and slowly transforming into triplets before the A motive's return.
After the Animez et augmentez, peu dpeu beginning in 158, the B motive begins the
spiraling accelerando to the end, continuing with Anime until the final Plus anime that
carries the D idea to the coda in 197. Debussy takes each of these modular soundscapes
and juxtaposes these ideas in rapid succession, using the modules of color to create the
rhapsodic structure. Understanding the characteristics of each of these four sections, ties
can be drawn between each of the ideas through rhythm, textures, motivic shape, and
The introductory material, A section, and B section each contain a distinctive idea
contain linking characteristics. While Debussy links the introduction and A through the
inversion (f, a-flat, b-flat to b-flat, a-flat, f), the triplet rhythm in measure two is carried
as the rhythmic motor from nine into A and also includes the shape of the leaping octave
motion from measure one into the bass of the next section. The contour of the melodic
line in the clarinet remains transfixed on the penetrating dream-like atmosphere of the A
section, improvising between the motive and inversion while remaining in this modular
mass of the subdued texture. Never climbing above a piano dynamic, Debussy casts the
first ideas in soft-spoken, airy color while enclosing the total idea of introduction/A with
this aqueous, flowing whisper of sound. He carefully orchestrates the beginning piano
line in the treble staff with the clarinet blending into the texture between the octaves.
J=50 Reveusement lent
Clarinet in Bb
Figure 6- Introduction with orchestration of the note fin the piano
It only emerges to begin its rhapsodic treatment at A. Debussy keeps the melodic contour
and rhythm in the B section but creates a brighter, more vibrant color by placing the
clarinet in the clarion range while creating a larger range in the piano triplets and more
separation in the piano between the treble and bass staffs. The intervals not directly
related to A but the downward and upward contour still link the ideas. Later in the piece,
Debussy returns to the A and B through the triplet transition and low bass of 152 as a
subdivision of the triplet and retaining the subdivision throughout the reiteration of B.
While he does juxtapose B with D between these first and second A and B, the two share
too many traits in contour, rhythmic texture, and dynamic to be completely separate.
While not as closely connected as the A and B sections, the interplay of C, D, and
later D and B show some analogous points in construction. Linked by tempo, both C and
D are marked Scherzando at the start of each idea. While C starts in triple, the
transformation of C and most of the subsequent material has a sixteenth note rhythm. The
impish texture dances over relatively placid tertian harmonies. When the rhythmic motor
of D begins, it propels the clarinet motive over the sparse texture. The more percussive
quality of C and D separate their atmospheres from the more liquid colors of A and B. As
Debussy swirls between B and D, he shares the ideas between voices and octaves,
reinforcing the ambiguous rhapsodic nature of the discourse and improvisatory elements.
As he employs these elements, he taps into earlier compositional influence.
Debussy's blurring of form and other structural techniques draw from his
formative inspirations. His early interest in oriental objects d'art and Asian trinkets and
later fascination with the Javanese Gamelan ensemble and Vietnamese theater witnessed
by Debussy at the 1889 Paris Exhibition permeate his textural and rhythmic treatment
(Day-O'Connell 225-261). Seen in the cross-rhythms and gamelan-esque sounds of the
Premiere Rhapsodie, the most obvious example is seen in the sixteenth motor of the D
section, orchestrating the color in the higher treble voicing. Debussy's blurring of form
also takes influence from the Symbolists. Not employing traditional progressions of
western tonal harmony, Debussy could pace the structure-based subtle allusion and
impression of certain emotion. Erik Satie's suggestion asking, "Why not make use of the
representational methods of Claude Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and so on? Why
not make a musical transposition of them" (Roberts 98) resides near the great creation of
his greatest masterworks. The watery textures of the dream-like rhapsody could lie in the
shimmering waters and hazy character of the symbolist poetry and artwork that Debussy
absorbed from early in life. With the creative impetus to use harmony in his unique
construction, he was "freed from the absolute need to articulate functional tonal
argument" and modules of sound were "able to exist as colored pitch masses" (Nadeau
69-73). His unique harmonic vision permeates the rhapsodic traits of the work and allows
for the unique color of each idea. Debussy was able to construct and craft the work
through his craft of color.
Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie shows his creative genius in form and structure
while still illustrating his previous influences. Through his connection of motives, he
constructs, dream-like depictions of color through sound and develops his own
soundscapes. The clarinet and piano travel through these sound modules or sound masses
and twist in and out of these different ideas in an improvisatory manner. Embodying the
rhapsodic form, the work contains the same assembly that appears in his most
penetrating, powerful compositions. Debussy's use of structure and treatment of each
motive carries outside inspiration combined with his personal inspiration to create an
unbelievably intricate and complex work that blurs the lines of musical form and
Berman, Laurence D. ""Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and "Jeux": Debussy's
Summer Rites." 19th-century Music. 3.3 (1980): 225-238. Print.
Day-O'Connell, Jeremy. "Debussy, Pentatonicism, and the Tonal Tradition." Music
Theory Spectrum. 31.2 (2009): 225-261. Print.
Dietschy, Marcel. A Portrait of Claude Debussy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Print.
Dumesnil, Maurice. Claude Debussy: Master of Dreams. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1940. Print.
Lesure, Francois, and Roy Howat. "Debussy, (Achille-) Claude." Oxford Music Online.
Oxford University Press. Web. 8 Apr 2013.
Nadeau, Roland. "Debussy and the Crisis of Tonality." Music Educators Journal. 66.1
(1979): 69-73. Print.
Nichols, Roger. Debussy Remembered. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992. Print.
"Rhapsody." Merriam-Webster,
(accessed April 28, 2013).
Roberts, Paul. Claude Debussy. 1st. Santa Barbara: Phaidon Press, 2010. Print.
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