Recently, I had the chance to work with an A-level student to work on the theme of “picturing music”. The requirements are rather broad, open to interpretation since the topic itself is rather generic, and can be approached from different angles. The required pieces were Claire de Lune by Debussy, Smetana’s Vltava, Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, and free choice of piece(s) that discuss theme of night. The idea is to prepare the student to handle a wide range of issues and topics regarding how composers picture their music.
Picturing music as a concept can be analyzed from multiple views; I take it here to mean how a composer brings an idea to life through the medium of composition/music. What are some of the influencing factors in making those decisions? How does music itself portray certain symbols and metaphors, and how we can use those metaphors as tools to control syntax and rhetoric.
I think it is very important to keep in mind that the goal is not to find musical proof that confirms the listener’s intuitive first impression (in most cases, people who listen to Claire de Lune think the piece is about the light of the moon. Some even claim it must be near a lake!). Rather, it is about raising a cultivated opinion that uses the music, and historical context to better appreciate the piece. So, with that aim in mind, let us proceed.
It is important to note that while Debussy disapproved the term, his style of writing was to be labelled impressionistic. It is also worthwhile to mention that Claire de Lune belongs to the suit Bergamasque (1890) which is from his early period. In other words, it was composed before Debussy established his middle period style (impressionism). We can argue that the piece can be viewed as a pre-catalyst for his impressionistic style since it involved many of his composition techniques.
Our argument starts to take shape around the premise that Claire de Lune is a piece that foreshadows impressionism. We can use the piece to show how Debussy pictured music. Therefore, I will start with a brief description of impressionism in the arts and transfer to music.
Impressionists used quick strokes of color as a technique to achieve the effect of painting if the viewer stands far away (instead of clear lines to dictate the shape). This technique allowed for more vibrant colors, more depth to the character of the subjects since they are not clearly defined by lines. We see the impression of these subjects as they experience different shades of light while the painter draws them. Light and Color were the key attributes in defining impressionism. Impressionist considered landscape and contemporary life as crucial subjects to document the changing environment around them with buzzling streets and different reflections of lights and colors around them.
Impressionism in music:
What we can conclude from impressionism is that artists wanted a different perspective; it could be that they were tired of it or that the “classic art” has exhausted its resources with past artists exploring its regions in depth. Regardless, it is suffice to say that there was a thirst for something new. This is parallel with music since composers were looking for new ways to escape tonality, classic German forms such as the sonata, and to establish themselves as original composers.
We can also extract that the music would have to include some sort of reference to nature or being outdoors. We know it has to include some way of dealing with light and its changing nature, how it reflects on objects, and how they interact in creating a moment. We also know that this moment is the composer’s impression of that scene (ironically, it takes a lot more than a moment to compose a piece).
Technically speaking, the impressionist composer would be looking for ways to replicate the impressionist artist: take away the clear lines and add brush strokes that imply the line, this translates into:
Claire de Lune:
Before we dig into the first section of Claire de Lune, I will demonstrate quickly what Debussy was trying to avoid, a clear example of a classical tonal piece. I have used Tarrega’s Lagrima because it is short, one staff, and fits the purpose of demonstration:
In case you are lost with terms such as tonality, and keys, I will explain it in as few words as I possibly can. I always explain tonality to my students as a metaphor for Family:
Imagine your family is called the family of E Major. Your family would have a father and a mother (typical “classical” family) and maybe some siblings. These would stand for notes and possibly chords. Obviously, these members would have different weight of influence on you, some might be stronger and some might not influence you at all.
Imagine also that you live in this family, and that you’re going to tell us a classic story of one of your adventures leaving your “home” and doing something, then later hopefully making it back safely to your home. This is in essence, very simply put, tonality.
In Lagrima, we started with E major (our home), we then went for a short adventure to chord IV, and then back to our home E major. We have a second section that is in e minor, which follows the same metaphor, and we finish the piece by reminding you that we are still in the safety of our home, E Major.
This simple idea was strong enough to inspire generations of composers, and forms the majority of our repertoire. It also allows for massive expansions once implemented in forms and syntax that suits its functions. Think of sonata form in symphonic movements for example; it takes a small melodic unit, transitions it to another related theme, and develops both through fragmentation, modulation (moving to other keys, like when you move your house), sequencing, augmentation, diminution, and other techniques to further comment on the subject before restating it in home key. It is safe to say that after Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, and other composers of late romantic period, composers were itching for something new to get rid of the compelling force of tonality.
Exercise: can you pick out similar traits that we have discussed in the music that you listen to? Pop music is a great place to start but try to pick examples from classical composers.
With this over simplified view of western tonality and classical period music, we move to Debussy’s techniques used in Claire de Lune which sought to weaken the strength of tonality and open doors for his later more experimental pieces. It is a good time now to go take a break, and start listening to the piece as you read the rest of this blog:
This is the opening of Claire de Lune. Right from the start, we can notice the difference in style, how each part has a different weight/function compared to Lagrima, and above all, that the music has a “be in the moment” sense to it. Notice how the music is not an argument for/against the melody, nor is it a development of a theme, nor is it a trajectory of chord progression driven melodic line.
The second section of Claire de Lune is a chordal passage with several characteristics that foreshadow later pianistic techniques used by Debussy in his later works:
We can see this technique used in several of Debussy’s music such as The Sunken Cathedral and Sarabande
The third and final section that I am going to discuss is the flourishing of notes that happen after the chordal passage. Few points to notice:
I will stop my discussion of the sections here simply because the style of writing of the third section continues almost to the ending of the movement. I want to emphasize that the piece is not divided into three sections the way I mentioned. I only divided it this way because of the angle I am approaching the analysis (that is, what are some musical instances that shed light on picturing music). For a form analysis, you will have to read elsewhere. However, depending on your opinion, it could be A B A with a coda or A B C A coda. I personally see it as an A B C D A Coda.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog, learned something, or maybe thought about music in a different way. I have to say it took a lot of courage for me to write this considering that I am not a piano player and Debussy is not my forte. However, I have learned a lot through my interaction with my student and I am a huge fan of his thinking process and sound since my university years. I understand there are other musicians out there who are better critics than me and can confirm/negate my opinion. However, that should no deter us from conversation!
When listening to music, it is important to understand what it is we are listening to, and why. Most people I talk to are afraid of this conversation because they want to “enjoy” music based on feelings. That is one way of approaching music, but there are many others. They do not necessarily conflict and sometimes even compliment each other. Saying you see the moon light when listening to Claire de Lune is perfectly acceptable, but it is not the truth. Personally, I strive to find ways to enrich my listening habits and appreciation of music. As a performer, it is important to understand these elements in pieces because they can guide you in making editorial decisions that are unique to your personality and technique.
To summarize this post, we have discussed an instant of how a composer can picture music. This instant being Claire de Lune by Debussy. We have looked at ways the music reacted to its social context by observing specific musical examples and techniques. I have to admit, at some points I forced some of my views on the piece to make it fit a narrative that is agreeable with picturing music theme. It is my hope that I kept this “forcing” at minimum and helped the listener gain a wider perspective on the music.
A la prochaine
These are short comments I post as I navigate through waters.