Claude Debussy's Musical Style


Debussy provided the first real alternative to the music and style of the German Romantic Wagnerians.  He established France as a musical power and opened up Western music to non-Western influences.  He drew from many sources, including: He is the last composer to decisively change the whole world of music.  His musical career can be divided into three basic periods.

First Style Period

This period is marked by his move away from salon music to a more serious/artistic approach.  Two examples are:

Second Style Period (Impressionistic)

The work that ushers Debussy into his second (Impressionistic) period is "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (1894).  It is probably his best known work.  Many Impressionistic techniques can be seen in "Prelude."  They are: Other exemplary works in this period are:

Third Style Period

Debussy's third period begins around 1912-13.  He shows a move away from Impressionism and toward a more textural and formal economy.  Poetic titles of the middle period disappear in favor of the classical titles he used as a youth.

Overview of Compositional Style

Debussy's innovations were based to some extent on: He extended this kind of rhythmical and phrase organization into every aspect of music:  thus melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral concepts are organized around qualities of sound patterns and relationships. It has often been suggested that the whole-tone scale, and its ambiguities, forms the basis of Debussy's music.  However, whole-tone relationships are used by him in conjunction with, or as part of, a much more complex group of melodic and harmonic usages -- interlocking pentatonic structures, for example, based on a fundamental principle of symmetry.

Characteristics of his style are

Debussy was the first to use an alternative musical concept Rhythm, phrase, dynamics, accent, and tone color are largely freed from direct dependence on tonal motion because of Debussy's ambiguities.  Thus, they tend to gain an importance in the musical process almost equal to that of melody and harmony.  One may find individual sound patterns and even isolated sounds which seem to create their own context.

An analogy might be drawn from one of Debussy's own musical "subjects", the sea.  Like his music, the waves of the sea form a powerful surge of undulating motion in varying crests and troughs without necessarily any real movement underneath.

(hear Arabesque No. 1)