Texture and ornament in the music of Claude Debussy

Date of Completion

January 1987






Motion is the central metaphor available to analysts' attempts to appreciate or account for musical activity. Yet, because the music of Claude Debussy is in so many ways puzzling to critics, a great deal of commentary neglects the question of his unique way of creating musical motion. The aim of this study is to show that Debussy did not reject motion in favor of color; rather, a new concept of musical motion generated (among other things) a new kind of color.^ This study focuses on a group of selected songs and piano pieces published by Debussy over a period of about twenty five years: "Passepied" (Suite bergamasque), "Clair de lune" (Suite bergamasque), "La flute de Pan" (Trois Chansons de Bilitis), "Clair de lune" (Fetes galantes, 1st collection), "Mandoline", "C'est l'extase" (Ariettes Oubliees), "Reflects dans l'eau" (Images pour piano, 1st set), "Feuilles mortes", "General Lavine--eccentric", and "La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune" (all from Preludes, 2nd book), "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut" (Images pour piano, 2nd set), plus the first movement from the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp.^ Chapter One is concerned with the nature of Debussy's conception of tonality, a circumscribed tonality of reduced cadential obligations. The harmonic surfaces are largely the product of mixed modalities, tonal allusion (a lack of dependence on cadential inevitability is accompanied by conventional relationships in foreign keys without traditional tonicization), and harmonic sequence.^ Debussy's harmonic surfaces are ultimately to be characterized as ornamental in that chromatic melodic motion occurs without significant chromatic harmonic motion. Chapter Two is an examination of ornamental textures and how they contribute to harmonic definition. Underlying progressions are characteristically expressed as successions of textures in which the importance of surface harmonic progressions is in many ways subordinate to other elements such as pedals, linear motion, and chordal arpeggiation.^ Harmonic, linear, and textural shapes often produce a tonal problem or puzzle. Chapter Three shows the essential formal consequences of their subsequent treatment in the articulation of both a tonal structure and a thematic plan. ^