We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

If voiles is taken to mean “sails,” Debussy’s music can seem “painterly”—that is, concerned in its subtly calibrated timbres (=colors) and blurry harmony with depictions of outdoor scenes or, more generally, with establishing correspondences between the aural and the visual. That is how many viewed him during his lifetime. As early as 1887, the term “Impressionism” was applied to his music, on an analogy with the famous school of French painters that had begun to flourish somewhat earlier, and which took its name from a painting by Claude Monet (1840–1926) called Impression: Sunrise, first exhibited in 1872 (Fig. 2-3).


ex. 2-9 Whole tone and pentatonic collections represented as symmetrical scales


fig. 2-3 Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise (1872), the painting that gave impressionism its name.

Like many style-identifying terms in the history of the arts (such as “baroque,” to pick the most widely accepted example), “impressionism” was at first a pejorative label. Certainly the critic who coined the term in response to Monet’s painting meant it as no compliment. Misunderstanding the intention, which was to capture transitory visual impressions (such as the play of light on a surface) naturalistically and with extreme precision, the critic implied that the broken colors and indistinct outlines in Monet’s painting were the result of sloppy technique. Similarly, the secretary of the Académie des Beaux Arts, who first applied the term to Debussy in evaluating the latter’s second envoi from Rome (a suite called Le Printemps or “Springtime,” for a wordlessly humming women’s chorus and orchestra), used it as a synonym for what he took to be the young Debussy’s chief liability: “a strong feeling for color in music which, when exaggerated, causes him to forget the importance of clarity in design and form.”14 Not surprisingly, Debussy found the word annoying, “a convenient term of abuse,”15 or at least (like any stereotype) a term of confinement. One did not use it to his face. But as in the case of the artists, the term “stuck” despite their resistance, and eventually lost its disapproving connotation. Instead, it came to name a quality that did seem to link the expressive aims of the new styles in French painting and music, and (perhaps even more important at the time) that strongly distinguished them from contemporaneous trends in Germany. The common ingredients, which critics have always found hard to specify in words however keenly they are “felt,” might be said to include such things as calculated effects of spontaneity; fascination with subtle gradations in color and texture that produced a nebulous, highly suggestive surface; and a greater interest in sensuousness than in psychology or strongly declared emotion. (Naturally, all of these traits could be easily translated into failings by German or Germanophile critics: vagueness, confusion, lack of expressivity.)

Even the strikingly static effect of Debussy’s harmony—the absence of “progression” or forward drive that we have already observed—could be viewed as “painterly,” an effort to lessen the discrepancy between an art that unfolds in time and one that extends in space. His frequent use of visually-oriented titles like “Voiles”—its companions in the first book of Préludes include “Les collines d’Anacapri” (“The Hills of Anacapri”) and “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (“What the West Wind Saw”)—confirm the parallel. The second book of Préludes (published 1913) include a couple—“Bruyères” (“Mists”) and “Feuilles mortes” (“Dead Leaves”)—that almost seem to parody the titles of typical “impressionist” paintings.

Most revealing of all, perhaps, is the absence of people, or rather of personalities, among Debussy’s subjects. One finds representations aplenty in his music of the sea, of the wind, of gardens in the rain and balconies in the moonlight, but of humans few unless viewed en masse and from afar (“Fêtes,” or festivals, one of three Nocturnes for orchestra completed in 1899), or unless mythical (fauns, sirens), artificial (“Golliwogg,” his daughter’s Negro doll, portrayed in his Childrens’ Corner suite for piano), or already embodied in art (“Danseuses de Delphes” or Delphic dancers, the first of the Préludes, which title evokes not the dancers themselves but the Greek vase on which they are painted). His landscapes are uninhabited, even if they bear traces of former habitation, as in “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footprints in the snow,” yet another Prélude). In sum, like impressionist painting, Debussy’s art was not an art of empathy. Music, he felt, was “not the expression of feeling but the feeling itself.”

He scoffed at “expressive” art like Italian opera, comparing it with the cheap music one heard in the streets. “There you can have your emotions-in-melody for a couple of sous!”16 he exclaimed in 1902, while his own sole completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, was being readied for the stage. Instead, like the painter Elstir, the fictional stand-in for Monet in Marcel Proust’s massive retrospective novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–20), Debussy aspired “to accustom his eyes not to recognize any fixed frontier, or absolute division between earth and ocean on a day when light had, as it were, destroyed reality,” thus to capture “boats [i.e., voiles] as if vaporized by an effect of sunlight,” or “churches that, seen from afar in a shimmering haze of sunlight and waves, seem to rise out of the water, as if molded in alabaster or foam, and enclosed within the arc of a multicolored rainbow, forming a picture of mysterious unreality.”17 Amazingly enough (or so it would seem had Proust not known it all along), Debussy actually called one of his Préludes “La cathédrale engloutie” (“The submerged cathedral”).

This side of Debussy is epitomized in Nuages (“Clouds”), the first of the orchestral Nocturnes. To speak of illustration would be futile: what do clouds sound like? Everything is suggestion, analogy, impression—of shifting shapes, darkening or lightening, perhaps at the very end some distant thunder in the timpani (in homage, no doubt, to the middle movement of Berlioz’s seventy-year-old Symphonie fantastique).

As is often the case with Debussy, the overall musical shape is simple and conventional: an ordinary ABA, articulated by a modulation (from two to six sharps and back again). Tonally, however, the music is as unconventional as can be. The only “normally” (if weakly) articulated cadence in it is the one between the first and second measures (Ex. 2-10a), in which a leading tone (A♯) is applied to B to establish it at the outset as the tonic. The fact that only two voices (doubled pairs of clarinets and bassoons) are in play eliminates the possibility of full triads here: thus the single unambiguous tonal gesture is characteristically attenuated, stripped down to a minimum (or what some might consider not even the minimum), reduced, in short, to a fleeting “impression.”


ex. 2-10a Claude Debussy, Nuages, mm. 1–3


ex. 2-10b Claude Debussy, Nuages, mm. 5–10

Beginning in m. 5 (Ex. 2-10b), the tonic note is given two mysterious shadows: first a G that sounds continuously, albeit in fluctuating colors (clarinet/bassoon, flute/horn, violins divisi) over the next four measures, and then an F that is introduced by an arching phrase in the English horn that falls back to B (mm. 5–8), but that is later reinforced by the two bassoons at the octave (mm. 7–8). Under normal “tonal” conditions, the three notes thus implicated, G-B-F, would constitute a dissonant harmony (“incomplete dominant seventh”) in need of resolution. Here, factors of timbre and register conspire to promote a sense of unperturbable calm that overrides the impulse to resolve. Parts of the configuration come and go. On the downbeat of m. 7 all three notes are present (plus a C♯—notated, of course, as G♯—in the English horn to provide a momentary whiff of “French sixth”).

The kettledrum has stolen in to reinforce the tonic B in the bass, however; and the first violins have stolen in with the same note at the opposite registral extreme. B thus dominates the chord, even though it is not, by standard reckoning, the functional root. After the downbeat of m. 8 the F is “cleared” from the chord; and on the next downbeat the G cleared, not by removing it altogether, but by nudging it up to G♯. That is obviously no cadential half-step, just an inflection or “tilt” away from G-ness so that B can be left to continue undisturbed in m. 10. There has been no “tonal motion” at all, just a sort of tonal inertia or lethargy that pulls everything back to B.

Following the English horn part through the entire composition will put another kind of Debussyan inertia on display. The English horn’s second entrance is identical to the first. And so is the third, except that the C♯ has been replaced by a grace-note D. That is all the variation that will be allowed, however: the next time it comes in, the English horn will repeat the same pair of variants: just as the second solo exactly reproduced the first, so the fifth exactly reproduces the fourth. Toward the end, the English horn plays a series of “petites reprises” (as French composers had been calling them since the seventeenth century) of the last three (cadential?) notes of its characteristic phrase. And its last solo exactly reproduces its whole vocabulary—two variants, petites reprises, and all.

The English horn music, in other words, has been hypostatized, to use a term (from the Greek hypostasis, “substance” or “essence”) that music analysts sometimes employ to call attention to an unchanging association of pitch, register, and timbre that remains constant throughout a piece. To put the matter more in structural terms, one could also say that the tritone F-B has been hypostatized in the English horn music, thus freezing into a constant one of the “shadow” pitches noted near the beginning of the piece. That shadowing effect, which became increasingly prominent in early-twentieth-century music, often involved the tritone, the interval that exactly bisects the octave. It is the “first cut,” so to speak, if one wishes to apportion the notes of the chromatic scale into a symmetrical, rather than a tonally functional, distribution. The notes in a bare tritone (which when inverted remains a tritone) cannot be functionally differentiated. What gives B its de facto priority in the texture of Nuages is not its tonal function but its registral and timbral predominance.

Eventually, B is given a sort of functional priority as well, but it is the new kind of functional priority foreshadowed in our discussion of “Voiles,” above. Right before the “B” section, Debussy allows the harmonic focus to go “soft,” first by interpolating a string of parallel chords, and then by calling in the whole-tone scale, expressed “maximalistically” as a six-note chord (also describable as a pair of simultaneous augmented triads) that exhausts the whole collection. The effect might be compared with that of a little breeze that nudges the sonic clouds into a new region of the aural sky.

That region (Ex. 2-10c) is D♯ minor, the key whose tonic lies the same distance from B (a major third) as did G, its “shadow” in the first section of the piece, but in the opposite “direction.” Like the C/E dyad at the end of “Voiles,” B has been located at the center of a symmetrically apportioned tonal space. Counting by semitones, that apportionment could be represented abstractly as 0 4 8. Any of the three functional tones—B, G, D♯—could be conceptualized as “zero,” in which case the other two will occupy the remaining positions. The reasons for regarding B as the “zero pitch” or “center tone” include (once again) its timbral and registral prominence; the fact that it was established first (and also—to peek at the end—sounded last), and is frequently held out in lengthy pedal points; and the fact that it participates in two symmetrical apportionments: the 0 4 8/with G and D♯ just traced, and the/0 6 octave-bisecting tritone relationship with F, periodically invoked by the English horn (and frequently seconded by the horns).


ex. 2-10c Claude Debussy, Nuages, mm. 64–68


ex. 2-10d Claude Debussy, Nuages, mm. 82–83 (third horn); mm. 86–87 (oboe)

An especially subtle touch is the oboe part in Ex. 2-10d. Clearly an imitation (or transposition) of the horn tritones in mm. 82–83, it has the effect of surrounding B with D and G♯, pitches a minor third away on either side. In other words, the major-third shadowing of B (with D♯ and G) has been shrunk by a semitone, but with B still located at the center, as if “zeroing in.” Rather than a strong progression toward B, in which B is perceived as an object of active desire, the zeroing-in technique establishes B as the fulcrum of a static tonal equilibrium, evocative not of the high-strung striving of contemporary German music, but of a sublime immobility (Ex. 2-11).


ex. 2-11 Zeroing in on the tone center in Claude Debussy Nuages

The tonality of the middle section (Ex. 2-10c) is colored by the use of pentatonic melody—or (as mentioned in connection with “Voiles”) a melody drawn from an “anhemitonic” pitch collection, to call it by a name that keeps in mind its status as a “half-stepless” counterpart to (and tonal coconspirator with) the whole-tone scale—and also by the use of “modal” chord progressions. The minor triad heard at the outset is qualified as the tonic of “D♯ Dorian” at the end of the third measure, when it proceeds to a major subdominant chord containing B♯, the “raised sixth degree.” Later on the tonic reappears in the major (respelled as E♭ in the strings), but alternates with B♭ minor (the “minor v”), which invokes the “Mixolydian” seventh degree in place of the too-focused (or too-focusing) leading tone. Harmonic focus is also avoided at the end of the piece, where no real cadence takes place, just a “liquidation” whereby significant harmony notes (the shadow G and tritone F at m. 99, plus the third of the tonic triad) simply drop out one by one, leaving B alone onstage when the curtain falls.


(14) Report by the Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, 1887; quoted in Jarocinski, Debussy, p. 11.

(15) Debussy, Monsieur Croche Antidilettante, trans. B. N. Langdon Davies; in Three Classics in the Aesthetics of Music (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), p. 8.

(16) Debussy, “Why I Wrote Pelléas” (1902); in Debussy on Music, ed. François Lesure, trans. Richard Langham Smith (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 75.

(17) Quoted in Jarocinski, Debussy, p. 8.

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. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002004.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002004.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002004.xml