Claude Debussy's
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Style Summary

Most of Debussy's important works were composed between 1893 and 1913. He is most famous for his innovations in orchestration and in his use of non-functional harmony. In general, his style is lyrical and evocative of mood or atmosphere through the use of both orchestral and harmonic colors. Debussy's stylistic traits are summarized as follows:

  • Instrumentation and Orchestration: Debussy's orchestral sound is unique in that his orchestra is "more often a single, delicately pulsing totality to which individual instruments contribute momentary gleam of color. One thinks of an impressionist picture, in which small, discrete areas of color, visible close up, merge into indescribable color fields as you stand back and take the painting in as a whole" (Joseph Kerman, Listen). Instruments are often used in unusual registers and combinations with emphasis on solo woodwinds, muted brass, and quiet percussion effects. The orchestral colors are widely spaced.
  • Form: Debussy usually avoids sharp sectional contrast and the developmental techniques associated with sonata form. He once commented: "Already for Beethoven the art of development consists in repetition, in the incessant restatement of identical themes. . . . And Wagner has exaggerated this procedure to the point of caricature. . . . Do you think that in composition the same emotion can be expressed twice?" (Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist).
  • Texture: Debussy's music is highly homophonic with incidental counterpoint. His piano music is idiomatic, featuring unusual voicings and pedal points.
  • Tonality and Harmony: In Debussy's music there is usually no clear tonal center established at the beginning. He uses many non-functional harmonies and parallel motion of triads or dominant 9th sonorities. The harmonic vocabulary includes extended tertian chords with added tones (especially the 2nd and the 6th), chords with omitted tones (especially the 5th), quartal, and whole-tone structure.
  • Melody: Debussy's themes and motives are fragmentary and tentative, and often draw upon church modes, pentatonic, whole-tone, or some other original scales. Many of his works are formed on a single continuous theme which undergoes transformations through the interactions between micro-elements, such as motives or intervals, that function as cells to produce a multiplicity of images, one imperceptibly growing out of and emerging into the other.
  • Meter and Rhythm: Debussy's music is nonpulsatile, with a vaguely defined metrical feeling.


Debussy's most important works are listed below:

  • Orchestral Music: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Three Nocturnes, La mer (The Sea), Iberia, Images, and Jeux (Games).
  • Chamber Music: a string quartet, a violoncello sonata, and a set of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments.
  • Piano Music: two books each of Preludes and Etudes, Children's Corner Suite, and Suite Bergamasque, including "Clair de lune."
  • Art Songs: poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc.
  • Opera: several begun, only one completed -- Pelleas et Melisande.
  • Several choral works, such as La Damoiselle Elue.

(c) 1998-1999 Spb Modern Classics