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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

But that is mainly because we know now how influential Satie’s subversive message eventually became, and what an important role these seemingly dehistoricized pieces eventually played in history. It took them a long time, though, to infiltrate the thinking of any but a narrow circle of the composer’s friends. Although written in 1887, the Sarabandes were not published until 1911. The Gymnopédies were issued in a tiny edition by a friend of the composer in the year of their composition, but were not effectively placed on the market until 1898; and when they were finally published for actual market distribution, they were accompanied by a pair of orchestrations (of nos. 1 and 3) by a friend of the composer who had in the meantime become famous and fashionable, and who thereby became the chief conduit through which the implications of Satie’s somewhat awkward “counterculturalisms” made fruitful contact with the established culture.

It was a situation comparable in its way to the one three hundred years earlier, when a band of Florentine aristocrats theorized about the revival of Greek drama, and even tried putting their ideas into practice at a few royal weddings, but only made a real dent in the history of music when they won a major professional composer, Claudio Monteverdi, to their cause and midwifed the birth of opera. In a like manner, had Satie not managed to impress and creatively affect the work and thinking of his friend Claude Debussy (1862–1918), a composer of prodigiously honed technique who had finished the Conservatory course with distinction and won every prize in sight, and who (though he never taught) occupied a place of real and increasing cultural authority in French musical life, his work might never have been taken seriously at all.


fig. 2-2 Claude Debussy at the piano in the home of the composer Ernest Chausson, Luzancy, August 1892.

It was Debussy whose 1896 orchestrations of the Gymnopédies put their composer on the map. And a Sarabande that he composed in 1894, later published as part of the Suite: Pour le piano 1894–1901 (1901), shows that he knew Satie’s Trois sarabandes at a time when only a personal friend of the composer could have known them. Their friendship dates from 1891, though an earlier acquaintanceship has often been speculated on, since they had so much background in common. Both of them were living in penury in Montmartre, Debussy having returned a few years earlier from Italy, where he had been sent by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1885 as the recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome. He began playing the rebel, refusing to supply a conventional overture for the concert at which his envois (things sent back), the creative fruits of his Roman sojourn, were to have been performed, as a result of which the concert was canceled and he was officially reprimanded. He found in the somewhat younger Satie a natural ally and, at first, something of a preceptor.

Debussy, who had spent several summers in Russia as music tutor to the children of Mme von Meck, Chaikovsky’s patron, began to declare his allegiance to Russian music, especially that of Musorgsky, as representing in its unschooled (and therefore liberated) primitivism a countercultural ideal. (As late as 1911 he would tell an interviewer that Musorgsky, uncouth as he was, was “something of a god in music.”12) In conversations with a sympathetic former professor from the Conservatory that took place in 1889 and 1890 and were transcribed stenographically by an eavesdropping Conservatory pupil, Debussy delivered himself of a brash countercultural credo: “There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law!”13 He illustrated the point at the keyboard with some desultory chord progressions (Ex. 2-6) that used some of the same parallelisms he would shortly discover in the work of Satie, plus a passage of whole-tone harmony of a sort that he may well have discovered first in Russian music (most likely Glinka or Rimsky-Korsakov), where it had by 1889 nearly half a century’s worth of precedents. (It is worth noting by the way that, precisely in 1889, Rimsky-Korsakov had conducted a pair of concerts of the newest Russian music at the World Exposition held in Paris to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution.)


ex. 2-6 “Debussy at the piano strikes these chords” (comment by Maurice Emmanuel, the stenographer)

When his interlocutor, Ernest Guiraud (best known for the recitatives he composed for Bizet’s Carmen so that it could be performed as a grand opera), commented that “It’s all very meandering,” Debussy at first responded with patronizing indignation. But then, as if remembering Ortega’s last three points above, he broke down and laughed at his own pretension, admitting in effect that esthetic edicts like the ones he was issuing were as often spouted by fools as by geniuses. “I feel free because I have been through the mill,” he admitted to his former teacher, “and I don’t write in the fugal style because I know it.”

The 1894 Sarabande (Ex. 2-7), composed when he had a model in view (Satie’s), shows how Debussy was attempting to discipline his vision and subject his rule of pleasure to a bit of theoretical scrutiny. The piece does not meander. Like Satie’s, it abides by the formal and tonal conventions of its genre, but does so in the same novel, tonally attenuated fashion that Satie had pioneered, if with far greater technical finesse.

From the point of view of Wagner exorcism, the first measure of Debussy’s Sarabande would be hard to beat. Its very first chord, a half-diminished seventh, is aurally tantamount to a Tristan-chord; but its dissonances are not treated as something to be resolved. Instead, the chord is moved up a minor third in strict diatonic parallel motion to a minor-seventh chord, whose dissonances are treated similarly. In effect, both chords have been treated as consonances, floating freely in musical space, liberated from the constraints of voice leading. There is no sense that the necessary resolution of the dissonance is being deferred, and consequently there is no provocation of desire. In Ortega’s terms, the chords are drained of their “human” content. The harmony no longer analogizes or incites emotion, save the emotion of delight in sheer sensuous gratification. Debussy has “seen to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art,” because he “considers art as play and nothing else.” Beauty, in short, has made a comeback.

Thereafter, one will look in vain for the dominant of C♯ minor—which is to say, one will look in vain for a B♯ acting as a leading tone. That half-step relation, being the sort of harmonic “glue” that arouses desire, is everywhere avoided. In mm. 2 and 4 the “minor v” is invoked. In m. 8 a triad on B natural fairly trumpets the fact that B♯ has been banished. In mm. 20–22 harmony is avoided altogether, and the cadential approach to C♯ is made by way of a “plagal” F♯. At the very end (Ex. 2-7b), a chord that would normally be prepared and resolved as a suspension dissonance—its intervals, counted up from the bottom in figured-bass style, could be represented as 7/5/4—is thrice transposed up a third in strict parallel motion, so as to reach a highly demonstrative B natural (i.e., not a B♯) in the soprano, which then moves in Satie-esque “pseudomodal” fashion to the tonic.

Ex. 2-7c shows the only fully expressed authentic cadence in the piece, replete with resolving leading tone (and hence the emotional climax). Needless to say, it is not applied to the tonic but to G♯ minor, the antidominant.


ex. 2-7a Claude Debussy, Sarabande from Pour le piano, mm. 1–22


ex. 2-7b Claude Debussy, Sarabande from Pour le piano, mm. 67–72


ex. 2-7c Claude Debussy, Sarabande from Pour le piano, mm. 54–57

For a “maximalized” version of the harmonic idiom exemplified by Satie’s and Debussy’s Sarabandes, a good place to look would be a celebrated piano piece of Debussy’s composed a decade and a half later: “Voiles” (1909), the second in a set of twelve Préludes for piano published in 1910 (Ex. 2-8). The idea of a set of freestanding preludes, independent aphoristic compositions for the keyboard, obviously stems from Chopin, a composer Debussy worshipped and claimed as a forerunner. Unlike Chopin’s, Debussy’s preludes carry descriptive subtitles; but unlike most titles, Debussy’s are given not at the heads of the pieces, but at the ends, modestly enclosed in parentheses, and preceded by dots of ellipsis, as if to demote them to the rank of whispered interpretive suggestions or “teasers,” rather than explicit prescriptions. In the case of “Voiles,” the teasing is exaggerated by the ambiguity of the word. “Le voile,” with masculine article, means “veil” or “mask”; “la voile,” with feminine article, means “sail” or “sailboat.” In the plural, the word can mean either.


ex. 2-8a Claude Debussy, “Voiles” (Préludes, Book I), mm. 1–13

Leaving the implications of the title aside for the moment, we are struck by a different sort of ambiguity. The first forty-one measures of the piece are composed entirely out of the notes of a whole-tone scale, which excludes half-steps by definition (except for a single tiny whiff of decorative chromaticism shown in Ex. 2-8b), and which therefore has no degree functions at all. (It cannot have them: the degree functions in diatonic music are identified by the placement of the half-steps; when all the step intervals are of equal size, degrees cannot be meaningfully differentiated.) Previously to this piece, whole-tone harmony had functioned in Debussy’s music the way it had in Russian music: that is, in interaction with diatonic harmony, creating momentary blurs. Now it is the sole point of reference.


ex. 2-8b Claude Debussy, “Voiles” (Préludes, Book I), m. 31

As long as all the notes in play are derived from a single whole-tone scale (or “collection,” which just means a referential set of pitches whether or not they are played in a particular order), there can be no sense at all of harmonic progression. There is nothing to establish “attraction” between the harmonic elements: neither circle-of-fifth progressions nor leading tones are possible, since the collection contains neither perfect intervals (except the octave) nor half steps. Instead, everything coexists in relative harmoniousness, and in what seems a single extended instant of time. Debussy accentuates the static quality of the harmony, and at the same time gives it an anchor of sorts, by accompanying the whole piece (from m. 5 on) with a B♭ pedal. A sense of unfolding is achieved not through harmonic variety (which is unavailable) but by an accumulation of melodic ideas (or motifs) in counterpoint.

Slightly past the middle a radical change takes place (Ex. 2-8c): a key signature of five flats suddenly appears, and the whole-tone collection gives way to a “pentatonic” one, the familiar scale on the piano’s black keys. The ear is refreshed. Since the pentatonic scale, like the diatonic scale, has intervals of two different sizes (whole steps and minor thirds), the harmony seems to come into sharper focus. But harmonic functions nevertheless remain in abeyance, since the pentatonic collection has the crucial element of “half-steplessness” in common with its whole-tone counterpart: in more formal terminology, both scales are anhemitonic, lacking in semitones. The two collections have three tones in common—evidently the criterion governing their choice—and the B♭ pedal sounds right on through the new section. Sensuous values have been varied; functional or syntactical matters remain more or less as they were.


ex. 2-8c Claude Debussy, “Voiles” (Préludes, Book I), mm. 41–48

When the whole-tone collection is reasserted (see the last measure of Ex. 2-8c), a new motif is introduced that imitates the foregoing black-key glissandos and provides a sort of synthesis to mediate and soften the contrast between the two previous sections of the piece. The melodic content of the first section is recapitulated, but in a new registral disposition: whole-tone counterpoint is inherently “invertible.” The very end of the piece is somewhat enigmatic. The B♭ pedal falls out three bars before the end, and the closing harmony (the dyad C/E, first heard in m. 5), while perhaps not predictable, and while impossible to justify as a conventional tonic, nevertheless seems right. Why? Possibly because of the way it had ended the first melodic statement, before the pedal had been introduced; or possibly because it provided the midpoint (that is, the axis of symmetry) in the initial scalar descent through which the whole-tone collection had been introduced at the very outset (mm. 1–2). In an altogether new and literal sense, the dyad C/E may be said to act as a tone center.

That is probably the best explanation—or at least the “right” one in terms of the composer’s actual technique. Increasingly drawn to symmetrical pitch collections (that is, collections that may be represented, as in Ex. 2-9, by scales that are intervallically identical when inverted), Debussy came increasingly to regard the middle of such an array as its most stable element. We will confirm this observation in a moment by examining another piece, but first let us return to the curious title of Debussy’s prelude and its implications.


(12) “La Musique Russe et les Compositeurs Français,” Excelsior (9 March 1911); quoted in Malcolm H. Brown, “Modest Petrovich Musorgsky, 1881–1981,” in Musorgsky: In Memoriam 1881–1981, ed. M. H. Brown (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 4.

(13) Quoted in Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, Vol. I (London: Cassell, 1962), p. 208.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002003.xml