The Music of Debussy: 5 Favorites

Today on PianoTV, we’re going to take a look at the music of Debussy.

Over the next couple of months, we’ll be exploring the French Impressionist composer Debussy, who many of you are probably already somewhat familiar with. He’s one of the most famous “modern” composers of all time (and by modern I mean turn of the 20th century), and wrote the enduring favorite “Clair de lune”, which we’ll discuss later in this video.

I want to start our discussion on Debussy by looking at some of the famous compositions he wrote. We’ll discuss key points about these compositions, and delve into his style as a composer as well.

The music of Debussy: style

Debussy’s style was very ground-breaking for the time (around 1900) and featured innovations such as:

  • Bitonality – using two different chords, or sounds from two different keys, at the same time (like C major and F major chord in unison)
  • Use of the whole tone scale and pentatonic scale (both of which we’ve discussed on this channel)
  • Random modulations – changing keys without any set-up or obvious “bridge”

Some people categorize his music under the umbrella of “Impressionism”, because of its blurry and abstract qualities that relate well to the Impressionist art movement at the time. Debussy himself wasn’t a huge fan of the categorization, but I find it’s helpful in understanding the era and his music.

Debussy’s musical influences

Debussy’s musical influences are worth mentioning, since they’re incredibly diverse. He employed some techniques from Medieval music (parallel 4ths, 5ths and octaves). He had an appreciation for Baroque masters like Bach and Couperin.

For Romantic composers, Debussy drew influence from Chopin and Liszt, both for their pianistic writing, but also for their ability to daringly innovate and push boundaries.

Debussy was also influenced by the late-Romantic Russian school (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky), with their use of ancient oriental modes, and their tendency to stick it to authority. And, of course, Wagner.

Beyond Western music, he also drew inspiration from the East. He was particularly a fan of Javanese Gamelan music, and the “shimmering” effect it created.

Music of Debussy: Categorization

We can divide the music of Debussy into three categories – the early period, middle period and late period. I’d like to explore his music today as it relates to his growth as a composer.

Early period

In the late Romantic era (end of the 1800s), music had become really, really big. Think giant symphonies and Wagner. But Debussy wanted to go in a different direction, and so he composed smaller, less dramatic works.

He composed some notable piano works in this period, including Deux Arabesques and the famous Suite Bergamasque in 1890. This is the piano suite that Clair de lune is from.

This is the era that his famous symphonic poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), is from. If you’ve ever taken a music appreciation class or any similar such study, you’ve probably studied this composition.

Deux Arabesques

His very famous Deux Arabesques was composed in this early period as he began to set himself apart from music at the time. These two arabesques were composed between 1888-1891, when Debussy was around 30 years old.

These piano pieces are some of the first examples of Impressionism in music, following the French Impressionism art style.

There’s a certain earthy, natural element in these arabesques. When talking about earlier arabesques from the Baroque era, Debussy said,

“that was the age of the ‘wonderful arabesque’ when music was subject to the laws of beauty inscribed in the movements of Nature herself.”

We’re going to take a listen to a little bit of the beginning of the first arabesque. After the introduction, you’ll hear Debussy’s use of the pentatonic scale, as well as polyrhythm (two different rhythms that happen simultaneously).

Music of Debussy: Arabesque no. 1

Video credits:

Performed by: Anonymous

Copyright: Attribution 3.0 unported

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) is very ambient and dream-like, and is a staple study piece for music students. It’s a 10-minute symphonic poem and was composed in 1894.

(A symphonic poem is generally a continuous piece of music – no movements – that tells a story through orchestration alone. It might be depicting a poem, story, novel, painting, or any other such piece of art.)

This is what Debussy himself had to say about the composition:

“The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.”

Mallarme was originally not happy that Debussy used his poem, but after seeing the premier that Debussy invited him to, heartily changed his mind.

There’s a lot to unpack in this, but since we’re going to listen to the introduction I’ll talk about some things you’ll hear. First, it was scored for a small orchestra (compared to the giant late-Romantic orchestras). Second, the flute you’ll hear represents the Faun, and its ambling, improvisational sound was really different from anything else you’d hear at the time.

Video credits:

Performed by: Columbia University Orchestra

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Debussy: Middle period

During Debussy’s middle period, he composed a very anti-Wagnerian opera called Pelléas et Mélisande, which was very successful and influenced the works of subsequent French composers (like Ravel). He also wrote a famous symphonic piece called “La Mer” in this era.

However, my favorite compositions of Debussy’s from this era are his piano ones (are you surprised?). I love his Estampes (prints), written in 1903. It’s a three-movement composition that evokes the sounds of Eastern Asia.

He also composed Children’s Corner and Preludes during this time (1908-1910).

Estampes

First, let’s talk about Estampes (1903). This collection has three movements and runs about 12 minutes long.

Let’s take a listen to the third movement, called “Jardins sous la pluie” (“Gardens in the Rain”). This piece details a garden in the town of Orbec during an intense rainstorm. Debussy uses lots of musical symbolism in this short movement, such as the alternating fast notes depicting raindrops.

He also uses various scales in this piece, such as minor, chromatic and whole tone scales.

Video credits:

Estampes, L. 100 – 3. Jardins sous la pluie

Performed by: Howard Lam

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

La Cathedrale engloutie

I want to share his 10th prelude with you, titled “La Cathedrale engloutie” (The Submerged Cathedral), which is one of my personal favorites from his collection of preludes.

An interesting thing that Debussy did with this book of preludes is put the title at the end of the piece, so as to not “force” an idea on the listener/performer. He wanted people to hear these pieces with fresh ears, before giving them a label.

This piece is based on a myth. The myth is about a submerged cathedral off the coast of Ys that rises from the sea on clear mornings, like a ghost cathedral. In the myth, you can supposedly hear church bells and other sounds on these mornings.

In the opening part of this piece, you’ll hear the sound of open 5ths, which is Debussy conveying the sound of distant church bells (musical symbolism). He also uses a pentatonic scale in this introduction.

Video credits:

Performed by European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Debussy: Late period

Later on in Debussy’s life, his music grew more and more abstract. He became less concerned with “prettifying” his unusual chord and melody choices, and used more wide open dissonance. To this point, you’ll hear the use of a lot of whole tone scales in this era.

He wrote a batch of piano etudes during this time, along with a second set of preludes (much more daring than the first set). He also wrote some sonatas (for flute and violin) that depicted a marked change of direction – a simpler, clearer and more straightforward sound.

Sonata for violin and piano

I want to take a look at Debussy’s Sonata for violin and piano, L. 140, from 1917. It was Debussy’s last major composition before his death, and the whole thing is very short for a sonata (only 13 minutes long). It also happened to be his last public performance (he died in 1918).

What’s cool about this work is that it blends traditional concert elements with an expressive gypsy violin style. This sonata also shows a break from his more “pictoral” writing style, into something more purely abstract.

We’ll take a listen to the beautiful beginning of the sonata, where you can hear Debussy’s characteristic style sharply lean in a new direction, that his impending death unfortunately didn’t allow him to explore.

Video credits:

Violin Sonata in G minor, L. 140 – Part I

Performer: Oliver Colbentson

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

 

 

 

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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