Compositional Ideas, Techniques and Images in Debussy¶s Pagodes

by Kyle D. Vanderburg

MUSC 306 ± Form and Analysis Dr. Sharpe October 26, 2008

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Compositional Ideas, Techniques and Images in Debussy¶s Pagodes The French composer Claude Debussy never agreed with the term ³impressionist´ given to him by his contemporaries and later, the authors of history books. However, like the artwork of Claude Monet, a chief representative of the impressionistic art movement, Debussy¶s music evokes feelings, emotions, images, or atmospheres. He himself said in 1887 that he possessed ³a profound disdain for music which has to follow a little story, which you are given when you arrive at the concert (Simms, 168).´ For Debussy, the feelings evoked by music were significantly more important than the rules and processes required in the actual act of composing music. Following this philosophy, Debussy used non-traditional tonal vocabularies such as whole-tone, octatonic, and pentatonic to prod the imagination (Ross, 35), brilliant orchestration to show off the various colors in his music, and offbeat rhythms to remove the strong metric feel expected by patrons of romantic music. Estampes, or Woodcuts in English, is a collection of three image-evoking solo piano pieces, Pagodes, Soireé dans Granade, and Jardins sous la pluie. Of these, Pagodes or Pagodas is the longest, and the focus of this paper. In this five-minute long piece there is an abundance of musical ideas, including twelve identified motivic fragments (outlined in Appendix A), recurring rhythmic devices, stark dynamic contrasts, and overall harmonic and functional structure, which suggest that Pagodas is not only the name of this piece, but its identity as well. Pagodes is made up of several sections, labeled in capital letters A through C. The twelve motivic fragments are labeled in lowercase italic letters from a through l, with variations on motivic fragments labeled a2 . The term ³pagoda´ is used to describe any number of Asian tiered towers with multiple eaves. These structures are stereotypically Asian, and are immediately recognizable as being

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representative of Japan, China, Korea, or Vietnam. The sloped rooflines are a prominent feature of this structure, and are the motivation for the shape of Debussy¶s musical material. The overall structure of Pagodes suggests the roofline of a pagoda or a series of pagodas. If one takes into account the melodic material as well as the expressiveness of the music, the piece appears to have three sections: The A section, which stretches from bar one to bar thirtytwo, the B section, which stretches from bar thirty-three to bar forty, and the significantly louder C section which stretches from bar forty-one to bar forty-five. The remainder of the piece repeats these various sections in the order of ABCBA, Transition, Coda, creating form resembling a modified rondo with an AB coda. It is important to note at this point that the material making up the C section, labeled as motivic fragment l, is identical to the material present in the left hand of the second half of the B section, bars thirty-seven to forty. While the C section is not an introduction of new material, it is presented in a significantly louder dynamic (from pp to ff), which gives it the feel of a new, separate section. As the piece begins in pianissimo and stays between pianissimo and piano for the first forty bars before jumping from piano to fortissimo, and then drops back to pianissimo until the final presentation of the A section, it is safe to say that Debussy¶s use of dynamics are conservative, and any sudden contrasts grab the listener¶s attention. This is not Debussy¶s only creative use of dynamic contrast. In addition, several of the motivic ideas used in Pagodes also have the tendency to show the rooflines of pagodas, such as in idea a in figure 2.
Figure 2

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Pagodes, like most Debussy pieces, adheres to a key center rather than being married to a particular key. In this case, the key is B major. The key allows for a perfect pentatonic scale² C#, D#, F#, G#, A#²to be utilized within this key center, strengthening the piece¶s Asian influence. Pagodes uses harmonies which result from layered lines rather than traditional vertical harmonies, although vertical harmonies does exist in motivic fragments b (beginning in bar three, the syncopated accompaniment in the left hand, although vertical harmony is not present in every iteration), g (the four bars in the right hand from bar 15 to bar 18), and l (the four bars in the left hand starting from bar 37, which also make up the primary musical material in section C). The remainder of the harmony found in this piece is built from the combination of two or more motivic fragments, or more common, when viewing a motivic fragment as a whole (such as in section A in bars three and four). In addition to the Asian influence evidenced by the pentatonic harmonic structure, the entire piece is organized in such a way that it resembles a javanese gamelan. The Javanese gamelan is an ensemble primarily consisting of percussion and gongs, which would have been seen by Debussy at the 1889 Paris Exposition (Grout, 665, Ross, 78, 516). Similar orchestration is found in Debussy¶s Nuages, where the flute and harp have simple pentatonic melodies over a static background. This is similar to Pagodes, in that the static background of upbeats found in motivic fragments b and b2 are used to tie various sections together, the second half of the original B section brings back the melody of the A section in sixteenth notes as accompaniment (bar thirty-two, the first iteration of idea c3), in bar forty-five with the introduction of the static sixteenth-sixteenth-eighth rhythm, and the running thirty-second notes in the transition to the final A section (bar 78, motivic fragment l3.)

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Despite the modified rondo form used by Debussy, and the twelve motivic fragments Pagodes flows together extremely well. There is much overlap in motivic material, such as in bar seven, where the primary motive of the A section (motivic idea c) is present in the right hand, the syncopated chords are present in both the right and left hands (motivic idea b,) motivic idea d is acting as an accompanimental countermelody, and a B and F# whole-note pedal is being held in the octave below that. This layering effect and the consistency of the syncopated accompaniment serve as the foundation upon which the entire piece may be built. In addition, Debussy¶s tendency to not be locked into the constraints of the time signature allows more freedom with rhythm, which is also used to transition between sections. While half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes tend to be the norm in Pagodes, there are also an abundance of triplets, thirty-second notes, and thirty-second note quintuplets, used interchangeably. Additionally, in the transition to the A section at bar fifty-three, trills are used as additional color in the right hand in bars fifty to bar fifty-two. Debussy appears to not only be conservative in terms of dynamics, but also in motivic material. In the twelve base motivic ideas identified, several of these can be described as background material (ideas b, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j), while the rest may be seen as actual melodic material (especially c, k, and l, which make up the major melody of sections A, B, and C respectively.) Melodic ideas in Pagodes generally tend to be subjected to the most development, especially in terms of rhythmic variation. The relative pitches are the same, however the rhythm is certainly different than the first iteration. For example, the main melody of section A (idea c) consists of two sixteenth notes followed by a quarter tied to an eighth, followed by six sixteenth notes.

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Another tendency of Debussy¶s when dealing with melodic development is fragmenting melodic ideas, as seen in ideas k and k2. While k is the melody of the B section, k1 is an accompanimental device, which is k shifted over a beat, and continues for only one bar. Debussy also uses the shifting of melodies in other motives, most notably in the transition of the C section material into accompanimental material for the final A and B sections (especially in the left hand in bars 88-98.) Overall, Debussy manages to use each motivic device for an unusually long amount of time. Debussy may not have enjoyed going down in history as an ³impressionistic´ composer, however, that is how the world views him, and that is the closest label anyone can venture to give him. His major focus was to write music that brought people to think, and to feel. His music remains influential to this day, guiding composers and theorists. Above all, it can be said that Debussy wrote music so that we might see.

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Works Cited

Grout, Donald J. and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007. Simms, Brian R. Music of the Twentieth Century, Style and Structure. 2nd ed. Belmont: Schirmer, 1996. Slonimsky, Nicolas. Baker¶s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1992.

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Appendix A: List of Motivic Fragments

Motivic Fragment a, bar 1. Introduction to A section, only appears in bars 1-2.

Motivic Fragment b, bar 3. Recurring pattern.

Motivic Fragment b2, bar 40. Shortened upbeat accompaniment.

Motivic Fragment c, bar 3. Main theme of A section.

Motivic Fragment c2, bar 11. Variation on original A section melody

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Motivic Fragment c3, bar 37. Metric modification of original A section melody.

Motivic Fragment d, bar 7. Accompanimental Device.

Motivic Fragment e, bar 11. Accompanimental Device.

Motivic Fragment e2, bar 19. Transitional material.

Motivic Fragment f, bar 15. Accompanimental Device.

Motivic Fragment f2, bar 45. Accompanimental device.

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Motivic Fragment g, bar 16. Transitional material.

Motivic Fragment h, bar 23. Countermelody to c2.

Motivic Fragment i, bar 27. Accompanimental Device.

Motivic Fragment i2, bar 78. Accompanimental device.

Motivic Fragment j, bar 27. Transitional material, against i.

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Motivic Fragment k, bar 33. Primary melody of B section.

Motivic Fragment l, bar 37. Secondary melody of B section, primary melody of C section.

Motivic Fragment l2, bar 88. Original melody for C section modified into accompanimental device.

Motivic Fragment l3, bar 91. Original melody for C section shortened and modified into accompanimental device.

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Appendix B: Structural Layout of Pagodes Introductory Material ± Bars 1-2, serving as introductory material to the A section. Includes the only iteration of motivic idea a. Rondo A ± Bars 3-32. Starts out with the iteration of motivic idea c, the original pagoda theme, against the syncopated accompaniment from fragment b. This continues until bar 7, where the c melody is reiterated, with the addition of fragment d as accompaniment. At bar 11, the c material changes into a triplet-based patter, creating material c2, accompaniment by material e. Bar 15 marks the beginning of an interlude in the A Section, with the introduction of the verticallyharmonic g material accompanied by the static f triplet material. This continues until bar 23, where the modified triplet A theme (c2) is accompanied by the rhythmically diverse material labeled h. A bridge starting at bar 27 connects the A section to the B section, with the introduction of the fourth and fifth-heavy I triplet theme against the slower moving eighth- and quarter notes of the j idea. The bridge ends with a modification of the b syncopated idea. B ± Bars 33-40. The B section is broken into two distinct parts, the first with the main B theme (k) being accompanied by the syncopated quarter note idea started in the bridge, and the second with the idea l being accompanied by yet another modification of the A thematic material (referred to as idea c3.) This allows the C section, which uses the l idea exclusively, to flow easily from the B section. C ± Bars 41-44. The C section is a significantly louder presentation of the material presented in the second part of the B section. This continues, occasionally accompanied by variations of the theme from the A section, before falling into the syncopated quarter accompaniment. B ± Bars 45-52. The B thematic material is reintroduced in bar 46, after a short transition from the C section. This actually only utilizes the first half of the original B section, opting to repeat that section rather than use both original halves. The repeated B section is placed against a series of tilled notes, once again creating a static accompaniment. A ± Bars 53-72. The A section is reintroduced, nearly identical to the first twenty bars of the original A section from bar 3. The sue of the crescendo molto segues into the transition. Transition ± Bars 73-79. During this transition, the final two beats of the first bar are triplet accompaniment, as seen in idea f. The harmony in this section tends to be more vertical than in other sections. This combination of C material and f accompaniment make for an easier transition back into the A material. Coda A ± Bars 80-87. These eight bars of A material bring back the original idea of the A section, of idea c, while being accompanied by descending and ascending runs in the right hand. This continues for four bars, before the melody c completely drops out, leaving the accompanimental

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runs to be played against the original accompaniment from the first A section, which is material d. B ± Bars 88-98. The final B section is a combination of the running accompaniment which first showed up in the previous A and C sections, and the modified l themes in the left hand.

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