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Many will agree that Claude Debussy (1862-1918), was very instrumental in shaping the development of the present day string quartet; either directly through his composition, or through the influence he had on composers after him. According to Haylock, “Debussy is one of the two most prominent composers in the Impressionism era” (Haylock 2013, 100). The other honor goes to the composer, Maurice Ravel. The uniqueness of Debussy can be attributed to his harmonic progression, personal composition method, the form of piece, as well as how he created various nuances and colors from the instruments.
The success and prominence of Debussy is attributed to his unique style, which apparently was a major influence to future great composers such as Stravinsky. In addition, other composers such as Ravel “even took the form of Debussy’s string quartet and used it as a model in his own compositions” (McFarland 2000, 83).
The composition of Debussy’s String Quartet began in 1892 and went as far as 1893 in August. Apart from being an excellent composer, Debussy apparently was gifted in this endeavor, since he did not even face many difficulties in his compositions. For instance, one of his greatest pieces of work is the String Quartet in G minor Op.10, which although intended to be first of two, never got to, since he abandoned the second string quartet.
Regarding composition of this great piece of work, Shibatani postulates Debussy’s admission that, “I think I can finally show you the last movement of the quartet, which has made me really miserable” (21). Debussy string quartet was dominantly influenced by the style of Cesar Franck. DeVoto postulates regarding Debussy’s influence from Franck:
It is known that Debussy came to a few of Franck’s classes at the Conservatoire, but, for whatever reasons did not stay in them and did not become his pupil. Nevertheless Debussy admired Franck’s music, praising the D-minor Symphony on several occasions, and would hardly have been unaware of Franc’s abundant reliance on cyclic thematic structure. Debussy’s String Quartet of 1893, close as it is to Franck’s in overall form, perhaps shows the greatest kinship to the classical chamber-music tradition among Debussy’s major works (DeVoto 2004, 7-8).
Debussy’s String Quartet apparently comprises of the traditional four movements. The fast first movement consists of free sonata form, calming and beautiful lyrical slow movement, with lively pizzicato effects, sands a final passionate and energetic movement, ending in the G major (Lesure and Langham 1988, 27). The design of the string is also unique in that it was cyclically designed. Some of the motives, themes, as well as whole sections from earlier movements resonated in later movements. The effect was that listeners were given the impression that the composition is unified.
The second piano prelude (Voiles) by Debussy has almost the status of being iconic, as the most unique and single exemplar to his style. This prelude is restricted to non-diatonic scales; pentatonic and whole-tone, which has made it very a very convenient encapsulation and contributor to the post-romantic semantics.
With regard to various aspects of Debussy’s compositions, Whittall had the following to say:
Debussy, at his best, was always a dramatic composer. What is dramatized, what brings tension and dynamism to the music, is the skillfully balanced relationship between chromaticism and diatonicism, both of which may show modal characteristics but which never lose sight of the triadic constructions and progressions of earlier tonal music. Debussy’s harmony functions precisely in the sense that it gives meaning, and movement, to this relationship. As a language it can best be described as “expanded tonality,” a language in which tonality still acts as a basic term, giving perspective to all other harmonic activity. (Whittall, 1975, p. 271)
Debussy’s compositions are also unique in style and delivery, based on that they usually derived from or attempted to generate enchantment. The musical ideas apparently defied defy analysis, and they are intuitively satisfying. Some of the recent critics of Debussy compositions are of the opinion that he incorporated various cinematic techniques in most of compositions ().
It is apparent however that Debussy’s compositions did not only break away from the traditional music syntax. In addition, the love of visual arts by the composer is apparent throughout his works. Perhaps Debussy was greatly influenced by the development in cinema, especially considering that the same began in Paris by 1895.
According to Leydon (200, 218), Debussy viewed cinema as a means through which the appeal for Symphonic music could be renewed in the contemporary society. This, he viewed as possible through application of cinematography techniques, to pure music.
Claude Debussy is arguably among the most influential figures in the world of symphonic music, and more specifically in composition of string quartets. The composer liberality of style and his nature of drawing from the environment which he found attractive enhanced his uniqueness. His greatness can also be attested by the numerous prolific composers his works inspired, as well as their popularity in our contemporary society.
DeVoto, Mark. 2004. Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on music, dimension and diversity, no.4. New York: Pendragon Press.
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Haylock, Julian. 2013. “Debussy String Quartet in G minor SAINT-SAENS String Quartet no.1 in E minor RAVEL String Quartet in F major.” Strad 124(1477):100-100.
Lesure, François and Langham, Smith. 1988. Debussy on Music. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Leydon, Rebecca. 2001. “Debussy’s Late Style and the Devices of the Early Silent Cinema.” Music Theory Spectrum 23: 217–241.
McFarland, Mark. 2000. “Debussy and Stravinsky: Another Look into Their Musical Relationship.” Cahiers Debussy 24: 79–112.
Shibatani, Naomi. 2008. Contrasting Debussy and Ravel: A stylistic analysis of selected Piano works and Ondine. Texas: UMI.
Whittall, Arnold. 1997. “Tonality and the Whole-Tone Scale in the Music of Debussy.” The Music Review 36 (4): 261-271.