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Images in Debussy's Piano Music

Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He was educated in music at the Paris Conservatory, and from the beginning he challenged the rules of music; his tendencies towards dissonance and free-form were frowned upon by his professors. He believed the classical Venetian structures were too restricting, and he began composing his distinct style of music. Debussy is known for his parallel chords, use of whole- tone scales and unexpected modulations, but better than that is his reinvention of the use of imagery in music, manifested in unique ways.

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His tone-color and pictures are so rich that the listener may believe themselves to have synesthesia. It is simply amazing the vision that his music can create from only a pianoforte keyboard. “Estampes” are three pieces written in 1903. The whimsicalness and liveliness take the mood of specific foreign places. “Pagodes”, the first piece, takes the listener to East Asia. Pagodas are temples build with a ornate and sparkling dome roof. The song, likewise, is stabilized with a solid bass tone, but above it ordained with elaborate notes and an upward-curving ascending melody.

The melody is centered around the pentatonic scale- characteristic of oriental music, giving a distinct eastern atmosphere, along with the chime and gong-like sounds. “Soiree Dans Grenade” is a song for Spain. The listener travels there with the sound of bells that would be heard dingling around donkey’s necks, the traditional Moorish melody inspiration and the rhythm reminiscent of strumming. The rhymic structure is the classic Spanish habanera, with strong anticipation towards the second beat. The third of the “Estampes” piece takes us back to Debussy’s homeland: France.

Debussy’s “Images”, are a set of two groups of three pieces, written in 1905 and 1907, respectively. They are some of Debussy’s most abstract work. The first three are performed much more regularly than the last three, if any of the “Images “ are performed at all. The abstractness leads to the rarity of their being played. The need for more imagination is becoming more and more inaccessible for the modern audience. Another factor, of course, is difficulty of performance. It is difficult for a pianist not only to master the notes and rhythms, but also the intense emotions required of Debussy through his dynamics and frequent tempo changes.

It is a shame, since “Images” pieces are rich with free variation that is so special of Debussy. In the first of the pieces, “Reflets Dans L’eau”, the variations become a metaphor for the piece’s inspiration. Water and reflection were the basis for this piece, and the variation can be compared to the distortion created in water. The phrases are transposed and inverted like ripples in the water. Intervals and dynamics in the treble clef are played seconds later, mirrored in the bass clef, like a reflection.

Debussy captures the energy of the flowing water with chords transformed into arpeggios and chromatic scales that move from treble to bass clef. Other images present in “Images” include bells, the moon and fish. “Cloches A Travers Les Feuilles” begins with hollow sounds that build up resonance across the entire keyboard, such as the gaunt sound of church bells. The piece continues with five intertwining parts, all within a range of just a bit more than an octave, and yet all distinct entities. The knells of a church perform in the same way, each bell a separate component with its own melodic line.

This with the heavy use of pedal paints a clear picture of chiming church bells. “Et La Lune Descend” was, contrastingly, not written with a picture in mind, but the piece creates such a true depiction of the moon, it so earned its namesake. Even visually, the score provides a sense of great space and vastness. Unlike Debussy’s other pieces, the action is not continuous- he provides contemplative silences. The piece consists of a gentle melody and secondly inverted chords, as is to raise what was once below to the top, like a moon traveling around its planet.

The inspiration behind “Poissons D’Or” was a Chinese lacquer panel of gold and pearl fishes. Debussy shows us this fish in his music with changes tempo, like the fish’s pauses and sudden darts, and shimmering glissandos, like the fish’s glistening coat. The entire piece is tonal only for a moment before switching to ditonality, and the remainder is a race to keep away from returning to tonality, a rhythmic and melodic strain to evade the fisherman’s net. These playful images may make us believe that Debussy was involved with the nature-obsessed and whimsical Impressionistic movement of his time.

But we must not forget that Debussy was also experiencing the turn of the century Industrialism. Because of this, there is another contrasting image present in “Images”, particularly in “Mouvement. ” The listener is moved through this piece with perpetual motion of triplets and sixteeth notes. The rhythmic dominance gives the impression of a simple machine steadily running. A strict structure is maintained; the piece moves from C major, into dissonant bitonality, and resolves at the end to a C major.

This structure contrasts to the free-format of the other “Images” pieces- reminiscent of the contrast between Impressionism and Industrialism. The piece does not seem to end, but rather trails off as if the machine will ceaselessly operate. Perhaps Debussy’s most famous piece, “Clair de Lune” from “Suite Bergamasque” in 1890 is also perhaps one of the best examples of his rich imagery. The title, which translates to “moonlight” is not even necessary to transport the reader to a night of mischief and romance. The delicate harmonies convey the lovely atmosphere of the moonlight.

The stresses that come just before or just after the beat create a fanciful night world. The piece uses retards, after-the-beat rhythm, rhythmic unpredictability and ditonality to create anticipation and suspense. It begins in the first measure, when a two-beat note seems appropriate, but Debussy decided to make it only two beats long. The imagery follows a sort of story. Whenever the melody resolves to tonic, which is only at the very beginning and end, it is a sigh of relief or possibly the fading of the moonlight.

Agitation comes in with dissonance and rapid notes, but then a brief moment of consonance comes in like and agreement. The pedal is not used much in this piece as it would make the piece sound opaque, when the mood is instead airy and dreamy. Just in these few pieces the extent of technique to create beautiful visions for the listener is evident. Debussy takes advantage of key, rhythm, harmony, et all, to create a new type of classical music: symbolism- obviously named for how each musical choice is an intentional symbol. Debussy was one of the most innovative and evocative composers of the 20th century.

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