Debussy’s String Quartet and Symphonic Music

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 Impressionist era”, when the other is Maurice Ravel (Haylock 100). The uniqueness of Debussy can be attributed to his personal composition method, harmonic progression, the forms he used, as well as how he created various nuances and colors from the instruments.

The String Quartet composed by Debussy in 1893 is a perfect example of Debussy’s specific approach to composition, which reflected the Impressionist ideals followed by the composer. Debussy’s composition method was characterized by the focus on rejecting traditional principles and by the choice of vivid colors, textures, and clear melodies. Trezise notes that Debussy’s style was also characterized by the composer’s “tendency to blur the melodic line, but at the time to strengthen it with added ornamentation in mixed timbres” (Trezise 181). From this perspective, the harmony in Debussy’s music is also unique, and the composer achieved the great results while improving the approach to using chords in his works. Thus, Debussy often focused on the domination of seventh and ninth chords in compositions (Lelutiu 334). In this context, the harmony of the String Quartet demonstrates how Debussy resolved the problem of dissonance in his compositions. The composer also chose to manipulate forms in order to achieve the expected results and focused on the cyclical structure as an approach to add to the melodic harmony.

Thus, the String Quartet consists of four string quartet movements which are different in their forms. The first movement is presented in a sonata form; the second movement is in a scherzo form; the third movement is rather slow; and the final movement is lively and energetic (McFarland 296). Debussy also used the cyclical structure to accentuate some themes and motives in different fragments in order to set links between various forms. As a result, the String Quartet is perceived as a perfectly structured and unified work. The uniqueness of Debussy’s compositions is also in his approach to orchestration. According to Fulcher, the “orchestral color in Debussy derives not only from his response to nature … but also to the brilliance and vividness of pre-Raphaelite color and detail” (Fulcher 170). Debussy added to the vividness of the composition while using unusual orchestral combinations, referring to lyrical tones, manipulating string and brass sounds, and focusing on the use of harp (Morrison 314). All these approaches helped to create the exceptional melodic pattern based on the instruments’ emphasized nuances and colors.

Debussy had a profound impact on those composers who worked later because he rejected the traditional approach to composing and chose to give emphasis to the tonal pattern, to clear melodies, and to the accentuated texture and color of the instruments’ sound. Researchers focus on Debussy’s unique creativity in contrast to the orthodox music tradition (Fulcher 2). From this point, Debussy contributed to the evolution of the music in the context of the Impressionist ideas (McFarland 296). The String Quartet is composed during the period when Debussy only started to realize the ideals of Impressionism in his works, and the composition can serve as an effective example in order to examine the changes in Debussy’s approaches to his personal composition method, to emphasizing the harmonic progression, to choosing specific forms to use in the work, and to the orchestration techniques. The impact of Debussy on the symphonic music is significant, and it can be explained not only with the composer’s techniques and approaches but also with his focus on reflecting impressions in the works because Debussy resolved the issue of linking the tradition and progress in the context of symphonic music while referring to new unexpected approaches.

Works Cited

Fulcher, Jane. Debussy and His World. New York: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Haylock, Julian. “Debussy String Quartet in G minor SAINT-SAÄ’NS String Quartet no.1 in E minor Ravel String Quartet in F major”. The Strad Magazine 124.1477 (2013): 100-112. Print.

Lelutiu, Radu. “Debussy String Quartet”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 35.5 (2012): 334-338. Print.

McFarland, Mark. “Debussy: The Origins of a Method”. Journal of Music Theory 48.2 (2004): 295–324. Print.

Morrison, Daniel. “String Quartet in g/String Quartet No.1./String Quartet in F”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 37.1 (2013): 311-320. Print.

Trezise, Simon. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

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