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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
- Texture: Debussy's music is
highly homophonic with incidental counterpoint. His piano
music is idiomatic, featuring unusual voicings and pedal
- 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
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.
Spb Modern Classics