Claude Debussy’s music creates magic wherever it goes. It frequently draws new students to the piano with the desire of playing his most famous pieces like Clair de lune and Arabesque No. 1. This post looks at how Debussy composed this music and what that has to do with being a performer of his music as well as being a composer who would like to create similar music.
Debussy and Impressionism
Claude Debussy was born in France in 1862 into a poor family, but his economic status didn’t deter him from music. At the age of 11, he entered the Paris Conservatory to study piano.1
He’s remembered as a “quiet revolutionary” for his role in “breathing new life” into the music of the nineteenth century.2 The term “impressionism,” commonly used to describe the music of this era, first found its roots in the visual art of Claude Monet. “Impressionism” was first used to mock Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise, pictured below.3
The name stuck for its succinct way of describing Monet’s style overall and went on to describe the music coming into vogue at the time.
“In relation to music, impressionism is an approach to composition that aims to evoke moods and sensuous impressions mainly through harmony and tone color.”4
Thus, impressionist music is similar to program music, but instead of expressing deep-seated emotion, impressionism expresses a single mood or “fleeting sentiment.” This is why Debussy’s music is frequently described as atmospheric or magical.
The transition into the impressionist style required Debussy to have strong opinions and to stand by them. For example, he wrote at length to rally against the “musical establishment and conventional compositional practice.”5 He questioned the reasoning behind traditional compositional rules like the avoidance of parallel chords and chromatic exploration.6 He even questioned consonance and dissonance:
“Nothing is more mysterious than a consonant chord! Despite all theories, both old and new, we are still not sure, first, why it is consonant, and second, why the other chords have to bear the stigma of being dissonant.”7
Questions about the nature of tradition like this motivated Debussy to create the new music that is so distinct and ethereal to our ears today.
In this post, we’ll dig into his Arabesque No. 1 Andantino con moto from Deux Arabesques, L. 66 and see how we can apply these ideas to our own music as both composers and performers.
The arabesque is a term originally used to describe architecture or painting that featured complex ornamental designs that trailed off into curlicues that could connect, such as in tile work.
In music, arabesque refers to the use of three compositional devices:
- The decoration of a theme using counterpoint
- The use of gruppetti (turns) to decorate themes
- Harmonies that rapidly change without urging the piece forward8
These devices act as the curlicues that extend from each musical idea and intertwine with one another. Also of importance to note is that these tactics do nothing to propel the piece forward. Instead, as F.W.J. Schelling puts it, these devices create “frozen music.”9
One final way to understand the arabesque is through ballet. An arabesque in ballet is a position in which the standing foot goes on point, the working leg is rotated outward and extended back behind the dancer, and the arms stretch equally outward, like the curlicues of the ornamental pattern.
For Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, I like to picture a music box featuring a ballerina in arabesque. Although she may spin to the music, she doesn’t go anywhere or tell a story. She merely uses her presence to create a whimsical and peaceful mood.
Let’s dig into how Debussy creates this mood by looking at the basic elements of Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Growth.
Impressionism, with its focus on color over form, doesn’t use functional harmony, which means the composer does not seek to go from dominant (V) to tonic (I). In this arabesque, Debussy favors more back and forth motion, alternating between only two chords for long stretches of time. Perhaps this is why his music is reminiscent of ocean waves on the shore.
For example, in the main theme that that first appears in measure 6, the left hand arpeggiates an E major chord, then C#/E, back to E major, then C#/E again.
After this, at the end of the first full section (mm. 14-16 ), the harmony alternates between F# maj7/C# and A# maj7 before leading back to the figure in A major that begins the piece.
Then he’s got some harmonic exploration with some chromatics (chords that are not part of the key, E major), and this section winds down with an E suspension to an E major. It almost feels like the piece could end here – indeed I’ve heard a few younger students’ recitals in which the performer would stop here – but the piece does go on, in a different key, B minor in the harmony.
It’s tough to determine a key here; according to the key signature, it’d be A major or F# minor. It certainly seems closer to F# minor, but this is definitely a developmental section that explores even more than the previous section.
After this, the first part of the piece repeats almost identically, so other then some lovely extended chords in arpeggios spanning used to slow the piece to a close, we don’t have anymore harmony to look at. We’ll talk a little more about the importance of harmony in the order of events when we look at growth.
The takeaway for performers is that understanding the repeated harmony patterns can help you learn the piece much quicker, especially the left hand arpeggios, as there are plenty. It can also help you memorize the piece as a whole because you know what’s coming next.
For composers, the takeaway is that one way to create magical pieces is by stilling the movement of time by repeating two chords. Satie’s famous Gymnopédie No. 1 is an easy piece to improvise over if you’re looking for somewhere to start, but you can just as easily use the left hand of measures 6 and 7 of this arabesque to practice writing over.
Another characteristic of Debussy’s music – and impressionist music in general – is that he frequently uses whole-tone and pentatonic scales, which pair well with his unconventional use of harmony. These are what make his melodies sound so airy: there’s a lot of space in between each note.
Looking at measure 6 again (pictured above), if you put the notes in order from the low E to the higher E, you get E, F#, G#, B, C#, and back to E:
This is a major pentatonic scale (steps 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 from a regular major scale), which doesn’t inherently possess a desire for motion, as it doesn’t contain the leading tone. Depressing all the notes in a major pentatonic scale at the same time sounds pleasant (like when you tell a kid to just play on the black notes, because they don’t sound bad together).
The fact that this is the phrase that marks off sections and fundamentally drives the piece is so fascinating then because of the scale’s lack of motion.
The motion then, comes from the melody itself. Its descent, or fall, is what drives the piece forward, which is why, despite being built from a still scale, Debussy cannot end the piece with this motif.
Another melody of note comes from the very beginning, the first two measures:
At first, it seems like the melody is quick, like it could be every note in every triplet, but at its second entrance, we get a better glimpse at the actual overlying melody.
In every entrance after the first one, we see a descending series of half notes: A, G#, F#, E: a lovely and simple melody that was actually hidden in the beginning. If you look carefully you’ll see an A within the first triplet, a G# within the third triplet, an F# within the first triplet of the second measure, and an E within the third triplet of the second measure:
It’s possible that Debussy had this descending motion in mind and simply added the triplets as the accompaniment after writing the half-note melody and used this to start out for an air of added mystery. We can’t know if we don’t ask him, but it’s certainly an artistic choice we can consider.
The takeaway here is that despite sounding more atmospheric than most classical motif-driven pieces, melody still plays a fundamental role in this piece.
Composers, let the melody lead, even if it is as simple as a series of half notes descending by step, and embellish and arrange it later. Performers, don’t overly exaggerate the melody, but also don’t let it get lost in the accompaniment. Remember that the melody gives it a direction.
This piece’s technical difficulties mostly lie in its polyrhythms! Polyrhythms are rhythms that don’t divide easily into each other that are sounded simultaneously.
Back in measure 6, the two against three polyrhythm gives the piece its whimsical and buoyant feel, like an autumn leaf gently gliding to earth or a music box ballerina poised in an arabesque and spinning away.
Other than this polyrhythmic figure, however, the rhythm is gentle throughout the rest of the piece. There aren’t any crazy 32nd notes, trills, or anything truly fast.
The tempo is marked andantino con moto, which means “a little faster than walking pace with motion.” Thus, performers, this is not a race, don’t play it as fast as you can just because you can. Remember that in ballet, an arabesque is stretched out and suspended in time, so allow yourself time to stretch in this piece.
Composers, you don’t need to throw in crazy fast rhythms in order for a piece to sound super complex and awe-inspiring. That one section of polyrhythms is impressive on its own, so Debussy allows that one to shine by diminishing the rest of the rhythms.
In music analysis, the category of growth many times covers the topic of the form of a piece, such as sonata-allegro, rondo, or strophic. Forms come down to noticing how many times an idea repeats and in what keys these repeats occur.
Debussy rejected these traditional forms, so luckily we don’t have to go into the history of all of these and their many evolutions.10
Recall the first two measures and its simple melody that we discussed in the melody portion of this analysis:
This and the later versions of it, with the half-note descending scale, act as bookends for each section of music. We have this as the very beginning of the piece, followed by the polyrhythmic main theme of the piece that we looked at in the harmony portion of this analysis.
Then, we have the beginning figure again, except with the half-notes overtop of it:
This is followed by an exploratory section, where there isn’t a clear key center. The music feels like it got lost in the woods and is trying to find its way back. We feel our way back as the section ends with an E suspension that resolves to E major.
This is where many students who haven’t had time to learn the entire piece before a recital will stop.
Following this is a clear key change; even the key signature changes to A major or F# minor, and the overall mood changes:
The tempo here is marked “rubato,” meaning freer, so the overall mood is more thoughtful than flowy as before. There is more harmonic exploration, but eventually we get back to the familiar bookend idea of the first measure.
After this, however, what occurred on the first page happens again almost identically, and we as audience members wonder if the piece is coming to an end, or if this is just another pause before another section of exploration.
If the piece were longer, I imagine Debussy might have included this idea as chapter headings for each episode, but it is a fairly short piece overall, so he ends here with a delightful and cheery coda section built of the material from the beginning:
The entire piece ends clearly with a repeated E major triad, so although Debussy didn’t use traditional functional harmony, we definitely feel “home” when we get to the end.
Now that you have a better idea of what makes Debussy’s work sound magical, go look at some of his other pieces like Clair de lune and see if you can identify the same ideas.
Feel the back and forth of the harmonies, the leading of his melodies, his complex rhythms that aren’t over the top. Let these ideas be a part of you as you seek to create your own magic by playing these pieces on the piano or by composing similar pieces.
Additionally, Dr. Josh Wright also has a helpful 55-minute tutorial that covers “tone quality, creating color, melodic and harmonic shaping, how to properly execute 2 against 3 polyrhythms, variety in shaping similar musical figures, interpretation, long lines, creating space and atmosphere within the lines, and impressionist stylistic elements to help you become as efficient as possible in your practice sessions” — he describes the more technical aspects of playing this piece in video format that I simply can’t in a written format like this!
Here’s the excerpt of that lesson:
Now go make some beautiful magic!
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1. “Claude Debussy,” Biography, accessed July 2, 2019.
2. Matthew Brown, “Tonality and Form in Debussy’s ‘Prélude à ‘L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,’” Music Theory Spectrum 15, no. 2 (19931001): 127–43.
3. Passler, Jann. “Impressionism.” Grove Music. 2001.
4. Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V Palisca. 1988. A History of Western Music. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 793.
5. Brown, “Tonality and Form,” 127.
6. Ibid., 128.
7. Debussy, Claude. “A propos de ‘Muguette’.-Au Concert Lamoureux,” Gil blas, 23 March 1903, in Lesure, ed., Monsieur Croche, 129-30; Lesure and Smith, Debussy on Music, 155.
8. Brown, Maurice J. E. and Kenneth L. Hamilton. “Arabesque (i).” Grove Music. 2001.
10. Brown, “Tonality and Form,” 128.