Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music

Debussy’s Method of Composition

Identifying Claude Debussy’s compositional methods as characteristic of Impressionism or Symbolism is a difficult task. For this reason, scholars continue to debate “whether Debussy was more influenced by Symbolism, particularly through poetry, or Impressionism, through painting” (Pasler 208). The only clear point is that the composer reinvented the existing patterns in music and focused on new interpretations of the sound. Still, scholars are inclined to state that Debussy translated the key ideas of Impressionism into the musical form (Pasler 208; Trezise 54; Smith and Potter 24). Impressionism was discussed in the 1880s as the turning point in the arts and as the radical trend that made both artists and viewers focus on their own impressions and emotions (Fulcher 144). Thus, Impressionism in painting meant that artists focused on representing their moods, used accentuated brush strokes, emphasized the role of light, and experimented with bright or, in contrast, subtle blended colors in their works (Fulcher 145; Kelly 34). The main focus was on creating the atmosphere, accentuation of emotions, and personal interpretation of tones and themes (Wheeldon 58). In music, Impressionist concepts and ideals were reflected in “involving organic form and calling on a new way of listening” with the focus on the composer’s emotions and “the physics of vibrations”, or with the focus on “the effect of the artist’s nervous system on the nature of the impressions” (Pasler 209). However, the proponents of the idea that Debussy was a Symbolist point at the influence of Stephane Mallarme’s poetry on Debussy’s music. It is important to note that Symbolism developed as an art movement in the late nineteenth century, and poets began to accentuate themes and images as more important than strict forms and rhymes (Trezise 79). Therefore, the Symbolist style of Stephane Mallarme’s poems significantly influenced Debussy’s musical style and approach to composition. For instance, Mallarme experimented with size, structure, and rhythm in his poems, and Debussy experimented with rhythm, musical time, and the use of sound and silence in his musical works (Kelly 112; Pasler 208; Trezise 80). In addition, Debussy also chose Mallarme’s poems for setting them into the musical form.

Get your customized and 100% plagiarism-free paper on any subject done
with 15% off on your first order

However, the Impressionist concepts are more obviously presented in Debussy’s music than the Symbolist approaches. Thus, in his music, Debussy rejected traditional musical patterns while focusing on the incorporation of new principles into the process of composing, and he created the entirely new approaches to the process of composition. Scholars argue that Debussy reflected the striking Impressionist ideals in his inimitable music while introducing elements that broke the classic harmonic patterns and forms (Haylock 101; Lelutiu 334). Still, Debussy never actually copied the Impressionist style; instead, he reinterpreted it within the large-scale structure of his works, while allowing his impressions influence the process of composing the music. Therefore, according to Trezise, Debussy was “surprisingly ambivalent about being labeled an Impressionist composer; he was irritated by the term but proud to be described a disciple of Monet” (Trezise 5). As a result, there are ongoing discussions concerning the reasonability of using the term “Impressionism” while talking about Debussy’s music because of the influence of Symbolism on the composer’s music style (Day-O’Connell 228; Lesure par. 4; Pasler 208). On the one hand, Debussy’s rejection of traditional approaches to composing the music is discussed as being influenced by Mallarme’s rejection of traditional meters, rhythms, and rhymes in poetry (Code, “Hearing Debussy” 495; Fulcher 145). On the other hand, such scholars as Cummins note that Debussy’s “literary inheritance goes beyond the symbolists”, and she focuses more on the role of Impressionist aesthetics in influencing the composer’s style of composition (qtd. in Pasler 209). From this point, difficulties associated with discussing Debussy as mainly an Impressionist can be compared with difficulties associated with dividing Mallarme’s poetry into purely Symbolist or purely Impressionist.

In any case, scholars began to discuss Debussy as an Impressionist while focusing on the composer’s unique choice of vivid colors, textures, and blurred melodies. Thus, in his works, Debussy chose to use pentatonic, whole-tone, and octatonic scales in order to break the traditional pattern of the melodic line and focused on these scales as the means to add symmetrical properties to his compositions (Day-O’Connell 225; Figures 1-3). For instance, Day-O’Connell describes Debussy’s choice of scales as “uniquely Debussian” and as “coloristic pentatonicism” (Day-O’Connell 230). Scholars note that Debussy concentrated on creating symmetrical pitches with the help of pentatonic, whole-tone, and octatonic scales, and his experiments led to breaking the rules and classic tendencies associated with developing the tonality in the composition (Pomeroy 89). Thus, Debussy used symmetrical properties of octatonic and whole-tone scales in order to create a distinctive sound, which is easily recognizable because of multiple accents (Trezise 179). As a result, Debussy’s melodies become characterized by “the rapid coloristic changes” in textures (Trezise 181). That is why Debussy can be described as an Impressionist and rule-breaker of the early part of the twentieth century.

Pentatonic scale
Figure 1. Pentatonic scale (Kamien 59).
Octatonic scale
Figure 2. Octatonic scale (Kamien 59).
Whole tone scale
Figure 3. Whole tone scale (Kamien 60).

Focusing on the composer’s distinctive style, it is important to state that Debussy used all possible approaches to add colors to compositions with the help of scales and unique tonality. Discussing Debussy’s music and approach to composition, Adele Katz points at the origins of the composer’s unique vision of tonality:

He achieved an originality of expression within the realm of tonality which, despite differences in treatment and styles, is based on the artistic methods of the past. In severing his connections with the past, in his experiments with new techniques, he instituted practices that were to influence the future (qtd. in Trezise 279).

One more distinctive feature of Debussy’s Impressionist style is the use of the “plagal leading tone” for creating the tonal pattern. Focusing on the diatonic tonality in Debussy’s compositions, Day-O’Connell identifies the composer’s approach characterized by references to a plagal cadence and by a specific “resolution upward to the tonic note”, and the scholar names this device the “plagal leading tone” (Day-O’Connell 235). It should be noted that the use of the “plagal leading tone” added to Debussy’s harmonization of the compositions’ melodies with the focus on changes between upward tones. Furthermore, this “plagal leading tone” became an “innovation in the history of tonal melody” influenced by the Impressionist ideas (Day-O’Connell 235). To illustrate these effects, it is necessary to focus on one example of the ‘plagal leading tone’ in Debussy’s works that is in the end of Pelléas et Mélisande, where the leading tone provides necessary accents (Day-O’Connell 237; Example 1).

Our academic experts can deliver a custom essay specifically for you
with 15% off for your first order
Pelleas et Melisande
Example 1. Debussy, “Pelleas et Melisande”, the plagal leading tone (Day-O’Connell 238).

Analyzing Debussy’s music style and approaches to composition, it is necessary to support the discussion with examples from Debussy’s remarkable String Quartet. Thus, the String Quartet composed in 1893 is a perfect example of Debussy’s specific approach to composition. Scholars agree that this composition illustrates how Debussy interpreted the concepts of Impressionism in music with the focus on rigid shifts in tones and melodies typical for the Impressionistic patterns (Fulcher 54; Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 651). Despite the fact that Debussy himself preferred to avoid the term “Impressionism” while describing elements related to his music, the rapid and unexpected shifts in his musical tones are a perfect example of the Impressionist approach because these changes in tonality and sharp swings in the mood of the composition were rather challenging for the musical standards of the nineteenth century (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 286-287; Morrison 312). Moreover, chromatic notes in Debussy’s Quartet are based on the pattern created by the use of different scales. In this case, the pentatonic scale in the middle of the String Quartet is most influential to add to the “the modal complementarities” and Debussy’s “‘games’ with musical syntax” typical for the Impressionist composers (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 286-287; Example 2).

The String Quartet
Example 2. The String Quartet, the pentatonic scale (Klein 12).

In addition to examples of a pentatonic scale, the String Quartet also contains the example of the whole tone scale that is in the first movement of the quartet, when the melody is played by cello with the focus on the changing harmony (Example 3). That is why, focusing on Debussy’s masterly use of scales to accentuate the melodic patterns, Code argued that the String Quartet blended “ironic traditionalism and radical innovation” (qtd. in Pasler 207). From this perspective, the Quartet is discussed as radical in its relation to the orchestral music based on emphasizing modal-chromatic principles associated with Debussy’s specific tonality.

The String Quartet
Example 3. The String Quartet, the whole tone scale, the first movement, mm. 100-102 (Jolly par. 3).

Referring to the provided examples, it is possible to state that the mystery of Debussy’s musical style is in his focus on combination of scales that were not typically used by the composers in the early part of the nineteenth century. As a result, the use of pentatonic, whole-tone, and octatonic scales is discussed today as a distinctive feature of Debussy’s music.

Harmonic Language and Progression in Debussy’s Compositions

In spite of the influence of Impressionism on Debussy’s style, his music cannot be described as chaotic because the exceptionality of the composer’s approach is in incorporating the principles of harmony into his compositions, while making the melody softly flow. However, it is important to mention that Debussy’s harmony based on the specific use of chords is highly influenced by Wagner’s approach (Code 280). Thus, Debussy also referred to the parallel harmony in his compositions as a specific compositional device that is effective to unite the composition’s parts (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 463). Such experiments with the parallel chords were discussed as innovations in music and as examples of the new harmonic freedom in music (Trezise 82). Furthermore, critics of Debussy’s approach pointed at his violation of traditional patterns and theoretical principles, but the composer replied that the theoretical approaches did not work when the composer creates music and noted that only “pleasure is the law” (Trezise 122). This “pleasure” was also found in the composer’s focus on the root position chords that added significantly to the melodic harmony of Debussy’s works (Fulcher 83). However, it is important to note that Debussy was not the first composer who broke the norms of the musical theory because he followed the patterns proposed by Wagner in his works.

Wagner influenced Debussy’s harmonic language significantly. As a result, the composer’s harmonic language is based on using dominant seventh and ninth chords in his compositions. These chords attract the attention of composers and listeners, and they reflect Debussy’s unique interpretation of the traditional school postulates (Fulcher 85). Thus, what is known as “Debussy’s sound” came from Wagner’s use of half-diminished seventh chords and dominant ninth chords (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 466). In his compositions, Wagner used chromatic harmony pattern and developed the Tristan chord which was later followed by the Impressionist composers. Scholars note that Debussy focused on the seventh and ninth chords because they were traditionally discussed as dissonant in relation to the modal syntax (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 264). However, criticizing the discussion of the role of chords usually used by the composer in his works, Constant Lambert points at the fact that Debussy’s “real revolution in harmony consists far more in the way he uses chords, than in the chords he uses. It is a development more far-reaching than any of Liszt’s or Wagner’s developments of harmonic vocabulary” (qtd. in Trezise 278). In addition, it is possible to note that Debussy restated the idea of dissonance in his music while using the Consonant harmony. Debussy used the parallel harmony in order to accentuate “a pellucid orchestral texture” and in order to distinguish tones with the focus on the idea of the Consonant strength (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 473). Thus, it is possible to state that Debussy preferred to use those Consonant seventh and ninth chords that were characterized as dissonant in music in order to create the melodic harmony.

We’ll deliver a high-quality academic paper tailored to your requirements

In order to understand the innovative approach of Debussy to creating the harmony in compositions, it is necessary to discuss the harmony of the String Quartet as the combination of traditional concepts and effective innovations suggested by the composer. In the String Quartet, Debussy focused on half diminished chords, the lyrical melody, shifting timbres, and on colorful harmonies. From this point, Debussy chose to make dominant the traditionally nonfunctional seventh and ninth chords in order to add the vague imagery to the composition (Wheeldon, Debussy’s Late Style 60). The most vivid feature of the String Quartet’s harmony is the focus on the whole tone deflections and recapitulations, as it is noted and analyzed by Code in his work (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 279). Thus, Code concentrates on the analysis of the remarkable recapitulation in Debussy’s String Quartet as the device to create the certain harmonic pattern. Focusing on the marks and annotations made by Code, it is possible to determine such features of Debussy’s harmony as the presence of the whole tone deflection before the obvious melodic return; the clear accent on dyads; and the overall recapitulation to represent the connection of the musical utterances based on half diminished chords in contrast to dominant chords (Example 4). Furthermore, Code accentuates the role of the quasi-Tristan chord created by Wagner and the Phrygian chord presented in Debussy’s String Quartet to emphasize Impressionistic tonal shifts while demonstrating the rejection of principles of the classical harmony (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 279). As a result, it is possible to claim that Debussy ignores any rigid structures and rules and creates the specific harmony “with shades of Wagnerian harmony and modal melodic inflections” (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 264). Referring to the presented discussion, it is important to note that the String Quartet is a remarkable example to describe the aspects of Debussy’s of harmonic progressions in his compositions.

he String Quartet
Example 4. The String Quartet, the first movement, the recapitulation, mm. 136–146 (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 279).

Evaluating Debussy’s harmonic language and recollecting the critics’ visions of Debussy’s use of harmony in the compositions, it is possible to state that the dominant seventh and ninth chords are the secret tool used by the composer in order to stress the most prominent parts in his musical patterns. Furthermore, Debussy’s approach to manipulating chords can be discussed as unique without references to the possible influence of Wagner’s chords on Debussy’s harmony.

Debussy’s Forms

The use of various forms in the structure of a composition is also a noteworthy feature of Debussy’s musical style that can be discussed with references to the analysis of forms of the String Quartet’s movements. Debussy’s String Quartet is composed of four movements that resemble Cesar Franck’s approach to composing string quartets. As a result, the influence of Franck on Debussy’s style is one of the most discussed topics because scholars argue that the String Quartet directly follows the quartet composed by Franck. Furthermore, Wheeldon states that Debussy’s quartet “clearly bears the imprint of Cesar Franck’s cyclic procedures” (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 645). Still, the reference of Debussy to Franck’s techniques is not surprising for the composer because according to Briscoe, “young Debussy frequently turned to Franck for models of structure in instrumental music” (qtd. in Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 645). Nevertheless, in his discussion of Debussy’s attitude to Franck and Debussy’s vision of the composer’s influence on Debussy’s works, Trezise points at Debussy’s attempts to avoid discussing Franck’s works and style as influential personally for the composer. Thus, Trezise claims in his work:

Debussy never fully renounced Franck’s influence, and in his articles and interviews this ambivalent attitude towards the Belgian composer is evident. Despite being called upon to review numerous concerts featuring Franck’s music, Debussy rarely discussed it except in passing, and on the one occasion that he discussed Franck’s music at length he gave a rather unflattering assessment of the Les Beatitudes (Trezise 49).

Having in mind comparisons of Debussy’s quartet with Franck’s quartet, it is necessary to analyze Debussy’s use of forms in this composition. The first movement of the String Quartet is marked “Animé et très decide”. Debussy often used sonata forms in his works; as a result, the sonata form is followed in the first movement of the String Quartet. The movement is rather fast and active. The primary and secondary themes are presented in contrast to each other. The second movement is “Assez vif et bien rythmé” that is presented in the classic form of a Scherzo. The movement is often described as the most striking in the quartet because of the use of powerful pizzicato chords and the viola’s theme (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 270). The third movement is “Andantino, doucement expressif,” that is rather slow and lyrical (Parks 130). The music of this movement is described as quiet and soft. Debussy also uses the quartet’s opening theme in this movement to present it gently in the middle part. The fourth movement is “Très modéré” that is marked as “En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion”. This final movement is energetic and played passionately, with the focus on the acceleration to present the main tempo in the composition. The quartet’s opening theme again appears in the final movement (Code, Claude Debussy 56; Wheeldon, Debussy’s Late Style 62). However, it changes regarding the loudness and tempo (McFarland 296). As a result, the final movement ends in the G major chord and has the powerful effect on the listener. These changes contribute to creating the unique vivid melodic pattern.

Another important feature is that Debussy’s String Quartet is characterized by a cyclical structure which adds to making the composition perfectly unified. Furthermore, the use of the cyclical structure in compositions can be discussed as a characteristic feature of Debussy’s expressive style (Fulcher 83). From this point, Debussy utilizes the cyclic pattern in the String Quartet to make the composition harmonic; and the composer successfully integrates the main motif from the first movement to the second and fourth movements of the quartet (Code, Claude Debussy 82; Morrison 312). From this point, the key feature of Debussy’s cycle is the use of a progression of the opening and secondary themes in the first and fourth movements of the String Quartet (Wheeldon, “Interpreting Discontinuity” 98). The cyclic theme from the first movement is presented in the second energetic movement. The third slow movement does not refer to the quartet’s cyclic theme, but the fourth movement recalls this theme obviously. In her work, Wheeldon demonstrates this cycle focusing on the “timbral” features of the quartet (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 647; Figure 4).

The cyclic design of Debussy’s Quartet
Figure 4. The cyclic design of Debussy’s Quartet (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 648).

Still, Debussy’s Quartet is composed according to the principles of a cycle not only with references to the resemblances in movements but also in relation to the tonal arrangements observed within the movements. Code accentuates that the first musical expression is presented in the String Quartet as the cyclic theme that is reflected not only in the second movement but also as the reprise in the first movement (Example 5). Thus, according to Code, “following the breakdown of phrasal regularity at m. 20, chromatically blurred dominant ninths over C and F lead to a varied recurrence of the opening theme at m. 26” (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 270). Referring to Code’s annotations, it is possible to state that Debussy uses the idea of a cycle not only as a structural device but also as a way to add to the composition’s harmony (Example 5). As a corollary, the idea of a cycle in Debussy’s works should be discussed at the levels of structure and harmonic progression.

The String Quartet
Example 5. The String Quartet, the first movement, mm. 26-31, the return of the first theme (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 272).

The cyclical structure of the String Quartet is also supported with distinct textures in melodies and tones. Wheeldon focuses on these textures while stating that Debussy “creates a unique and recognizable timbral identity for each of his central movements, identities that he is able to draw upon in the same manner in which he draws upon his cyclic theme” (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 649). Adding more to the discussion of the role of a cycle in Debussy’s quartet, Wheeldon also provides the analysis of the final movement’s structure as the illustration of Debussy’s use of the cyclic structure to create the harmony in the composition. Thus, Wheeldon states in her article, “The opening of the finale presents two themes, a G minor first theme and a lyrical second theme (derived from the dotted rhythms of the first), which appear at first to comprise the main thematic material of the movement” (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 666; Examples 6; Example 7). For this reason, the cyclic structure plays the key role in Debussy’s compositions for creating certain musical images and associations.

The String Quartet
Example 6. The String Quartet, the fourth movement, the main theme, mm. 31-32 (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 667).
The String Quartet
Example 7. The String Quartet, the fourth movement, the main theme, mm. 69-72 (Wheeldon, “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique” 667).

Focusing on Wheeldon’s illustration of the importance of the cyclic structure in Debussy’s works, it is important to note that the similar cyclic structures were later used by many composers in order to imitate Debussy’s specific style. However, in spite of the visions that the cyclic structure was simple to be imitated in a range of works, the composers of the 20th century experienced significant difficulties while trying to represent the forms and structures observed in Debussy’s compositions (DeVoto, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality 39). The reason is that it is impossible to imitate only one component of Debussy’s composition in order to create the similar work with the same distinct features that made critics discuss Debussy’s works as striking and provocative.

Debussy’s Approach to Orchestration

In orchestration, Debussy chose the path of alterations and unusual orchestral combinations in comparison to the composers’ focus on the traditional orchestral sound. As a result, scholars are inclined to discuss Debussy’s orchestration and sound as “clouded by modal and chromatic inflections” (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 265). Focusing on inflections, Debussy tried to change the traditional orchestral hierarchy in order to allow “the previously normative string sound to emerge newly marked” (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 265). These techniques are used to create Debussy’s specific “heterophonic orchestra”, focusing on which the composer Hugues Dufourt characterized Debussy’s overall approach to orchestration: “Emancipated from symphonic principles, the Debussyan orchestra turned to a succession of primitive impressions… instrumental colors, at once radiant and raucous, seem suspended by the slipperiness of the chords” (qtd. in Pasler 207). One more distinctive feature of Debussy’s sound is his unexpected manipulation of the notes’ strength that is clearly observed in such compositions as the String Quartet and Trois Nocturnes (Day-O’Connell 240). It is important to state that Debussy’s approach to orchestration, as it is presented in Trois Nocturnes, can be discussed as masterly because of the composer’s desire to make instruments serve his specific vision of the orchestral pattern.

In addition to the traditional analysis of orchestration, scholars often discuss Debussy’s approach as influenced by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. In spite of the fact that Debussy’s music is usually discussed as influenced by Impressionism and Symbolism, it is almost impossible to ignore the role of the Pre-Raphaelites in affecting the composer’s approach to orchestration as the specific manipulation of lyrical tones, string and brass sounds in order to add different colors to the melody. According to Fulcher, the Pre-Raphaelites developed a new mystical movement in the arts; they “evoked a visionary mysticism” (Fulcher 169). Thus, Debussy reflected this mysticism while changing the orchestral color (Rings 181). As a result, the composer’s unique variations in orchestration are discussed by the scholars as his response to the “brilliance and vividness of pre-Raphaelite color and detail” (Fulcher 170). From this perspective, Pre-Raphaelite “painting inspired in Debussy a different kind of transparency” (Fulcher 170). According to Louis Laloy, the impact of the Pre-Raphaelites is observed in Debussy’s “spontaneous use of silence” as the “way to give the emotion of phrase its full value” (qtd. in Fulcher 170). Moreover, the similarities between Debussy and the Pre-Raphaelites are in their focus on breaking the previous rules and attempts to find a new status in the art (Smith 97). In this context, Debussy’s orchestration, full of unexpected breaks, silence, and accents, is an example of auditory mysticism in relation to the Pre-Raphaelites’ “visionary mysticism”.

To discuss Debussy’s orchestration in detail, it is necessary to focus on his approach to creating the orchestral design for Trois Nocturnes. These compositions demonstrate how Debussy creates the melodic pattern with the help of breaks and silence, while adding mystery to the traditional orchestration, and with the help of emphases on instruments’ nuances and colors. Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes are discussed as the composer’s “farthest-reaching forward leap into the future of music” because of his “most radical exploration of previously unknown realms of tonality” (DeVoto, “Claude Debussy” 167-170). Thus, Trois Nocturnes are composed of three movements that are known as “Nuages”, “Fêtes”, and “Sirènes”. Analyzing the features of this composition, Glaeser points at “Nuages” as possessing the specific “visual cross-modality” because this music influences listener’s all senses (Glaeser 22). Focusing on the orchestration in this work, it is also necessary to discuss the “treatment of meter and time” in the movements because Debussy utilizes all possible approaches to add mysticism and depth to his approach to orchestration (DeVoto, “Claude Debussy” 167-170; Wheeldon, “Interpreting Discontinuity” 98). Thus, in “Nuages”, the main focus is on repeating the musical utterances made by different instruments in the pattern of the movement. First, certain musical material is introduced by horn to make accents in the melody (Example 8). Then, the melody is modified, and Debussy introduces another musical pattern played by solo flute (Example 9). This musical utterance is also modified, and the third variant is played by violin, viola, and cello (Debussy par. 1-3; Example 10). The modified musical utterances seem to be similar and different at the same time because of the focus on changes in melodic structures and because the instruments are used to add more vividness to the composition.

Example 8. “Nuages”, musical utterance by horn (Debussy par. 1).
Example 9. “Nuages”, musical utterance by solo flute (Debussy par. 1).
Example 10. “Nuages”, musical utterance by violin, viola, and cello (Debussy par. 2).

Comparing qualities of different movements in Trois Nocturnes, it is important to note that Debussy focused on leading melodies of violin, viola, and cello as well as on the horn solo in “Nuages”, but he changed the approach to creating the melody in “Sirènes”, and he accentuated flute solo, which rather low in register, soft, and even mute (Example 11). That is why, it is possible to state that Debussy prefers to accentuate softness as well as the increasing intrigue at the background in his compositions.

Example 11. “Sirènes”, the flute solo, mm. 103-104 (Debussy par. 3).

Having referred to the presented analysis, one can state that Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes symbolize “a new world” in relation to the composer’s approach to orchestration and to accentuating solos in compositions (DeVoto, “Claude Debussy” 168). Thus, Debussy’s novel approach to orchestration is realized in Trois Nocturnes because Debussy develops the heterophonic orchestra that “dominates the character of all his later orchestral works” (DeVoto, “Claude Debussy” 168). Indeed, in “Sirènes”, Debussy’s “rapid coloristic changes, with heterophonic doublings, are much more prominent”, and they are used to draw the listener’s attention to the moments when the orchestration seems to be extremely radical and innovative (Trezise 184). In order to achieve such a result, Debussy revised Trois Nocturnes several times, while focusing on accentuating the English horns, flute solos, and division of strings.

Debussy’s Influence on Symphonic Music

The influence of Claude Debussy on chamber and symphonic music is one of the most important questions necessary to be asked while analyzing the musical trends in the early part of the 20th century. Debussy’s works are the examples of the composer’s unique vision of manipulating melodies and textures in compositions. The reason is that he supported the idea that a symphony could incorporate a variety of colors while retaining a traditional structure. Thus, Debussy reinvented the concept of texture and approaches to creating a melody in a musical pattern by incorporating the elements of gamelan and ensemble into his compositions. For instance, the Javanese gamelan was treated by Debussy as exotic, and later scholars noted the influence of this music on the composer’s works (Day-O’Connell 226). Godet notes that during one of Expositions Universelles, “many fruitful hours for Debussy were spent in the Javanese kampong of the Dutch section listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres” (qtd. in Day-O’Connell 226). Therefore, while discussing Debussy’s influence on later composers, it is important to state that his approaches were also discussed as exotic.

References to discussing Debussy’s music as ‘exotic’, ‘unique’, or ‘ambiguous’ are common for the scholar literature. The reason was that Debussy did not follow any dogma in his vision of the composition’s harmony. As a result, these brief snatches of melody and unexpected breaks attracted the composers who described themselves as proponents of the Avant-garde movement in music (Antokoletz and Wheeldon 132). However, discussing the elements of avant-garde in Debussy’s music, Code states that “to relegate Debussy to a transitional phase of avant-garde experimentation is to miss the lessons his modal-chromatic hybrids might still hold for a “modern classical” style free of Schoenbergian imperatives” (Code, “Debussy’s String Quartet” 287). In this case, Arnold Shoenberg and Pierre Boulez are often referred to as followers of Debussy’s style, but to analyze the role of Debussy in influencing the other composers, it is necessary to state what other radical innovations are associated with the name of Claude Debussy in the symphonic music of the twentieth century.

Ambiguity in Debussy’s works is not the only characteristic feature of the composer’s music style. Along with declaring changes in the understanding of textures and melodies, Debussy significantly altered the process of orchestration by strengthening it and, therefore, making the orchestral pieces enigmatic, as critics later defined them. As a result, modern researchers try to answer the questions of “how ‘tonal’ was Debussy’s musical language, given its use of whole-tone, pentatonic and octatonic modal elements? How traditional, or organist, was his attitude to form? How innovative was the expressive ‘tone’ of his music?” (Trezise 278). Focusing on these questions, it is possible to claim that Debussy’s orchestration, treatment of tonality, and exclusive approach to creating the harmony broke the traditional visions characteristic for the symphonic music of the nineteenth century. For instance, DeVoto notes that Debussy’s “achievement has permanently transformed the evolution of tonal music” (DeVoto, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality xi). Consequently, changes in tonality and harmony were observed in Ravel’s works and ballets of Stravinsky (Trezise 280). Still, DeVoto pays attention to the fact that there are more features associated with Debussy’s style that allow us to speak about his unique role in the development of the symphonic music:

What is now emerging from various studies of Debussy’s music is that the uniqueness of his art resides not in his harmonic vocabulary, nor in the specialized heterophony of his instrumental textures, nor even in the idiosyncrasies of his anticipated thematic and formal approach in different works; it resides in the synthesis of all of these and more (DeVoto, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality xiv).

In his book, Jensen also points at the importance of discussing Debussy’s music in its completeness and connectedness of elements and patterns (Wheeldon, Debussy’s Late Style 64). Discussing the attractiveness of Debussy’s compositions for listeners and other composers, Jensen states:

Although there have been many imitators, more than a century after much of it was created, Debussy’s music remains fresh and original. The core of its attraction is not a specific attribute (its tunefulness, for example), but the effect of many elements – the combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm, as well as its instrumentation and timbre (Jensen vii).

Discussing the secret of Debussy’s musical style as influential for the development of the symphonic music, it is necessary to refer one more time to the uniqueness of the String Quartet and Trois Nocturnes. Thus, in the writings, Magnard was inclined to describe the String Quartet’s “admirable savagery” (qtd. in Jensen 172). At the same time, Chenneviere was inclined to discuss the String Quartet as “perhaps Debussy’s masterpiece” (qtd. in Jensen 172). Moreover, DeVoto concludes about the mystery of Debussy’s Quartet and Trois Nocturnes while focusing on Debussy’s “personal reinvention of harmony” as “the most easily audible aspect of his revolutionary art” (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 484). In this context, it is necessary to focus more on Debussy’s harmony while discussing the influence of Trois Nocturnes’ harmony on the later symphonic music.

What unique aspects related to Trois Nocturnes’ harmony were later imitated by the other composers who proclaimed the ideals of the Avant-garde trend? According to DeVoto, Trois Nocturnes were characterized by the “advanced and exploratory harmonic idiom” based on Debussy’s vision of parallel harmony (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 484). Thus, in “Fêtes”, Debussy uses “absolute-pitch harmonies for structural roles” which are examples of the composer’s vision of the ambiguous harmony that influenced the later composers’ approach to building the harmonic schemes. In this context, it is necessary to refer to DeVoto’s analysis of the harmony in “Fêtes”, mm. 3-5, mm. 9-10, mm. 11-14, m. 27 (Example 12).

Example 12. “Fêtes”, the harmony (DeVoto, “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony” 473).

The ‘ambiguous harmony’, the parallel harmony, the focus on pitches, and unusual accents are typical features of Debussy’s harmonic patterns. These elements were imitated by the composers of the twentieth century many times as well as the other distinct features of Debussy’s music style (Greenbaum 343). Trying to explain the mystery of Debussy’s approach to composing highly attractive works, Jensen states that the core of Debussy’s compositions “is an engaging simplicity that defied traditional analysis and lends mystery to what ultimately is an extremely refined and highly personal approach to composition” (Jensen vii). From this point, Debussy’s music can be discussed as influential and even revolutionary while being put in the context of the symphonic music’s development because those elements that were previously discussed as radical, innovative, and unusual became the distinct features of Debussy’s works (Antokoletz and Wheeldon 54; Jolly par. 3-4). Furthermore, these features and elements were widely imitated by such composers as Ravel, and Debussy’s influence on the symphonic music of the twentieth century became obvious (Wheeldon, Debussy’s Late Style 58). Those elements which were discussed as innovative by the contemporaries of Debussy became actively represented in the other composers’ works as influenced by Debussy’s unique Impressionist’s vision of musical patterns. From this perspective, the influence of Debussy on the symphonic and chamber music can be discussed as significant because Debussy’s music style helped to focus the other composers’ attention on the features of harmony and on orchestration that contributed to creating the inimitable music pattern.

Works Cited

Antokoletz, Elliott, and Marianne Wheeldon. Rethinking Debussy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Code, David. Claude Debussy. Glasgow: Reaktion Books, 2010. Print.

“Debussy’s String Quartet in the Brussels Salon of “La Libre Esthétique”. 19th Century Music 30.3 (2007): 257-287. Print.

“Hearing Debussy Reading Mallarme: Music Apres Wagner in the Prelude a lapres-Midi d’un Faune”. Journal of the American Musicological Society 54.3 (2001): 493-510. Print.

Day-O’Connell, Jeremy. “Debussy, Pentatonicism, and the Tonal Tradition”. Music Theory Spectrum – The Journal of the Society for Music Theory 31.2 (2009): 225–261. Print.

Debussy, Claude. Nocturnes. 2014. Web.

DeVoto, Mark. “Claude Debussy: “Nocturnes,” Édition de Denis Herlin; “Nocturnes: 1. Nuages – II. Fêtes – III. Sirènes, 1898-1899,” Édition de Denis Herlin”. Notes – Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 58.1 (2001): 167-170. Print.

Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on His Music. Maesteg: Pendragon Press, 2004. Print.

“Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony in Debussy.” Liber Amicorum Isabelle Cazeaux: Symbols, Parallels and Discoveries in Her Honor. Ed. Isabelle Cazeaux and Paul-André Bempéchat. Maesteg: Pendragon Press, 2005. 459–485. Print.

Fulcher, Jane. Debussy and His World. New York: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Glaeser, Katherine. “Intermedialists: Debussy and the influences of Whistler and Baudelaire”. Collection Building 33.1 (2014): 21-24. Print.

Greenbaum, Matthew. “Debussy, Wolpe and Dialectical Form.” Contemporary Music Review 27.2 (2008), 343–359. Print.

Haylock, Julian. “Debussy String Quartet in G Minor SAINT-SAÄ’NS String Quartet no.1 in E Minor Ravel String Quartet in F Major”. The Strad Magazine 124.1477 (2013): 100-112. Print.

Jensen, Eric Frederick. Debussy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Jolly, Alex. Debussy: Playing with Color. 2012. Web.

Kamien, Roger. Music: An Appreciation. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2006. Print.

Kelly, Barbara. French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870-1939. New York: University of Rochester Press, 2008. Print.

Klein, Joseph. Composing a Melody. 2014. Web.

Lelutiu, Radu. “Debussy String Quartet”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 35.5 (2012): 334-338. Print.

Lesure, Francois. Debussy, (Achille­)Claude. 2014. Web.

McFarland, Mark. “Debussy: The Origins of a Method”. Journal of Music Theory 48.2 (2004): 295–324. Print.

Morrison, Daniel. “String Quartet in g/String Quartet No.1./String Quartet in F”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 37.1 (2013): 311-320. Print.

Parks, Richard. “Debussy Studies”. Canadian University Music Review 20.2 (2000): 129-137. Print.

Pasler, Jann. “Debussy the Man, His Music, and His Legacy: An Overview of Current Research”. Music Library Association 69.2 (2012): 197-216. Print.

Pomeroy, Boyd. “Tales of Two Tonics: Directional Tonality in Debussy’s Orchestral Music”. Music Theory Spectrum 26.1 (2004): 87-100. Print.

Rings, Steven. “Mystères limpides: Time and Transformation in Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige”. Nineteenth Century Music 32.2 (2008): 178-209. Print.

Smith, Richard Langham. “Debussy and the Pre-Raphaelites”. 19th-Century Music 5.2 (1981): 95-109. Print.

Smith, Richard Langham, and Caroline Potter. French Music since Berlioz. London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006. Print.

Trezise, Simon. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Wheeldon, Marianne. “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique.” The Journal of Musicology 22.4 (2005): 644–679. Print.

Debussy’s Late Style. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print.

“Interpreting Discontinuity in the Late Works of Debussy”. Current Musicology 77.2 (2004): 97-120. Print.

Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music
The following paper on Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music was written by a student and can be used for your research or references. Make sure to cite it accordingly if you wish to use it.
Removal Request
The copyright owner of this paper can request its removal from this website if they don’t want it published anymore.
Request Removal

Cite this paper

Select a referencing style


YourDissertation. (2021, December 31). Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music. Retrieved from

Work Cited

"Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music." YourDissertation, 31 Dec. 2021,

1. YourDissertation. "Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music." December 31, 2021.


YourDissertation. "Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music." December 31, 2021.


YourDissertation. 2021. "Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music." December 31, 2021.


YourDissertation. (2021) 'Debussy’s String Quartet and Influence on Symphonic Music'. 31 December.

Click to copy