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Claude Debussy's Gamelan

Written by Sylvia Parker


The year 1889 marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and the nation celebrated with the
Paris Exposition Universelle, an extraordinary World's Fair. The importance of the event was
emphasized by the construction of the Eiffel Tower, built for the occasion.

Twenty-seven year old Claude Debussy frequented the many exhibits from all over the world and was
enthralled by the gamelan music and the dancing it accompanied that he witnessed in the Javanese
pavilion. The experience inspired him later to capture the sounds of the gamelan in his 1903 piano
composition Pagodes. This article examines how he did so and also places Pagodes' composition within
the contexts of contemporary documentation of the Exposition, his other works, and recent scholarship
about exoticism. Four principal elements of gamelan musictimbre, tuning, polyphonic layering, and
rhythmic structureare examined through the eyes of twentieth century ethnomusicologists. The same
four elements are analyzed in Pagodes. Elements of Western musical composition complement the
analysis. What emerges is not a vague impression but, rather, a remarkably successful rendition of the
Eastern gamelan on the Western piano.

1889 Paris Exposition Universelle

Edward Said, in his classic study entitled Orientalism, writes of the Orient's special place in European
Western experience:

The Orient is . . . the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its
civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images
of the Other.1

Against a backdrop of fascination with this Other, the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle took place
over the course of six months between May 6 and November 6. Of five Expositions Universelles
roughly a decade apart,2 a special significance graced this one, timed one hundred years after the French
Revolution. Twenty-five million people3 visited the grounds along the Seine River in what is now Parc
Champs de Mars, headed by the newly constructed Eiffel Tower and featuring displays in the form of
concert halls, galleries, cafes, boutiques, villages, and pavilions. (See Figure 1 for the General View of
the grounds.) Frances colonies Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Gabon-Congo, Oceania, Cambodia, Annam,
Tonkin, and Cochin China (these last three comprising today's Vietnam) were all represented. Countless
other countries brought their own exhibits at France's invitation. One of the most successful world's fairs
in history, it had enormous political, technological, historical, cultural, and musical significance.4

While representation of the exotic was already popular in musical and stage works with characters,
stories, dancing, and music in imitation of the Other, the 1889 Exposition for the first time brought
authentic exotic music to visitors to experience close-up.5 Julien Tiersot, a musician, scholar, and
eyewitness to the Exposition, rhapsodized over its wonder and importance:
Rome is no longer in Rome; Cairo is no longer in Egypt, nor is the island of Java in the East Indies.
All of this has come to the Champ de Mars. . . . Without leaving Paris, it will be feasible for six
months to study at our leisure, at least in their exterior manifestations, the habits and customs of
faraway peoples. . . . music being among all of these manifestations the one most striking . . . The
thing most interesting of all and most novel for us, in the Javanese village, [is] a spectacle of sacred
dances, accompanied by a music infinitely curious, which will take us as far as possible from our

Tiersot's book includes studies of music from many exotic countries represented at the Exposition
ranging from Africa to Norway, Vietnam to Roumania, America to Egypt. His chapter on Java describes
gamelan instruments and elements of musical composition, and contains transcriptions of musical
examples as well.

Among the most popular exhibits was the kampong, or village, of Java, with nearly a million visitors.
(See Figure 2.) Its entrance featured two tall towers with double sloped pagoda-like roofs. Tents
sheltered a village where some sixty Javanese inhabitants lived and carried on typical activities for all to
see such as housekeeping, cooking, weaving cloth, making batiks, carving bamboo utensils, and making
jewelry. Processions of villagers playing hand drums and angklung (hand held instruments of rattling
tuned bamboo tubes) escorted visitors to the open-air pavilion where musical and dance performances
occurred daily.7

One of the many visitors was Debussy, who returned again and again to the exhibit. Debussy's friend
Robert Godet captures the composer's fascination:

Many fruitful hours for Debussy were spent in the Javanese kampong of the Dutch section8
listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible
combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres, while with the amazing Bedayas [dancers] the music
came visually alive. Interpreting some myth or legend, they turned themselves into nymphs,
mermaids, fairies and sorceresses. Waving like the ears of corn in a field, bending like reeds or
fluttering like doves, or now rigid and hieratic, they formed a procession of idols or, like intangible
phantoms, slipped away on the current of an imaginary wave. Suddenly they would be brought out
of their lethargy by a resounding blow on a gong, and then the music would turn into a kind of
metallic galop with breathless cross-rhythms, ending in a firework display of flying runs. The
Bedayas would then remain poised in the air like terrified amazons questioning the fleeting
moment, the secrets of love and life. But they are amazons only for a moment; now they are water-
spirits or birds or flower-maidens weaving festoons, or butterflies of all the colours of the rainbow.
A flute run flashes out and each of the Bedayas beats its wings, or flutters its petals, and once again
they come to life in rhythm paying homage to their hidden god.9

Figure 3 shows the Javanese dancers at the 1889 Exhibition. On the left can be seen a part of the
gamelan accompanying them.10

Many visitors wanted to recall the music they had heard at the Exposition. In the days before modern
recording technology, transcriptions were a common and popular means for acquaintance with music of
all sorts.11 Concurrently with the Exposition, and for years after, piano transcriptions of exotic music
were published and available for sale.12 Claude Debussy too remembered the Javanese music he heard at
the Exposition. Elements of gamelan emerged in many of his compositions from that time onward. One
particular piano piece, Pagodes, remains, over a century later, the most famous and effective gamelan in
the Western repertory. Debussy wrote no transcriptions of what he heard at the Exposition. He wrote no
academic treatise about gamelan music. Yet he provides us with detailed understanding through


Found throughout Indonesia, the gamelan may be thought of as a percussion orchestra. Its instruments
are mostly metallophones struck with mallets of various sizes, shapes, and materials. Pictured in Figure
4, they include single hanging gongs and groups of tuned gongs and bars suspended over resonator
boxes and tubes.13 Their timbres are exquisitely rich, varied, and colorful. They are handmade by skilled
craftsmen who measure tin and copper in special recipes to make bronze, then melt it, pour it into molds,
cool it, pound, file, reheat, strike, listen, pound, and file some more. Figure 5 shows instruments in the

Their size, resonance, and means of striking naturally affect their volume and speed of note patterns
playable upon them. They fall into two general categories known as "loud" and "soft." In addition to the
multiple tuned percussion instrumentsloud sarons and bonangs, and soft slentems, genders and
gambangshand drums and single soft instruments enrich the ensemble: a bamboo end blown flute
(suling), a two-string bowed spike fiddle (rebab), a multi-stringed plucked zither (celempung), and
singers. Unlike a Western orchestra, in which players bring their own instruments upon which they are
experts, the gamelan stays put and the players come to it. They join together from all walks of life,
starting even in childhood, and traditionally pass on their music to each other aurally.14 Each player is
competent on all of the instruments. Each gamelan has its own home and its own name, and each is
revered as having special, even supernatural, qualities.15

Gamelan tuning contrasts with that of Western music. The traditional Javanese slendro scale has five
pitches spaced approximately equally over the octave. Thus each interval is larger than a major second
and smaller than a minor third.16 The approximate nature of the "equal" spacing creates intriguing
differences between gamelans. The fundamental pitch of the gamelan is set not to a universal standard
but, instead, to one chosen by its maker, often the highest note he can conveniently sing.17 In a practice
that must be astonishing for Western musicians, "unison" instruments may be intentionally made slightly
out of tune with each other, to produce a shimmering timbre when they are played together.18 The
microtonal uniqueness of each gamelan is a part of its character, and is known and valued by Javanese
players. Substituting an instrument or installing a replacement part is unthinkable. The fixed tuning of
the percussion instruments may be enriched in performance by special inflections of intonation known
as "vocal tones," provided by the suling (flute), rebab (spike fiddle), and singers.19 The actual music
played upon the gamelan limits its focus to selected notes and ranges, resulting in three patets, akin to
Western modes.20

Gamelan music is built of blended melodic layers. The manner of playing is dynamically level, and the
balanced heterophony among the various melodies reflects Javanese society, in which restrained
behavior and smooth interactions are valued. In a study entitled Folk Song Style and Culture, Alan
Lomax describes this "Old High Culture" society as
a highly stratified world, where the fate of every individual depended upon his relationship to the
superstructure above him, where he was confined within a system of rigid social stratification, and
where his survival depended upon his command of a system of deferential etiquette . . . . [In music]
there is a strong relationship between increase of layering . . . and elaboration. [ . . . ] Another
measurement of increased social formality is orchestral complexity.21

Among the layers, a central skeleton melody (balungan) provides a guide. Even if not rendered note for
note, its outline is known and expected by all the players. It moves in fairly conjunct intervals over a
narrow range and in steady note values at moderate tempo. Simultaneously other instruments improvise
elaborations that enrich the basic melody. Players learn short melodic patterns (cengkoks) around and
between skeleton tones, and then improvise their placement into the texture during performance. The
equally blended effect is unlike Western classical music, in which usually a primary melody stands out
from harmony and improvisation is uncommon.

The speed or, rather, rhythmic intensity of improvisation is naturally influenced by the resonance and
clarity of the instrument upon which it is played. Soft style percussion instruments are able to play
quicker, more intricate patterns than loud style instruments. Specific ratios (iramas), named and known
to all the players, govern the speed of the notes. Rather than defining individual time values such as
quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, iramas instead indicate relative speeds in reference to the skeleton
notes. Ratios of 2:1, 4:1, 8:1, 16:1 dictate subdivisions, each doubling the intensity of activity.

Holding together, indeed controlling, all elements of gamelan music is rhythmic punctuation known as
colotomic structure. The rhythmic architecture always includes large gong phrases (gongans) and
smaller phrases of exactly half and quarter length, the phrases and subdivisions always proceeding in
four-beat groups (gatras). The ethnomusicologist Judith Becker explains both large structures and
elaborative subdivisions relative to Javanese philosophy:

This regularity and order . . . reflects the orderly universe. Traditional gamelan music both
sanctioned and was sanctioned by heaven, resulting in a musical conservatism manifested by the
rigid adherence to four-beat units, which may be either multiplied or subdivided, . . . a musical
relationship that has remained fixed for a thousand years or more.22

Endings provide the most important rhythmic events in gamelan music (not beginnings, as in the
Western downbeat). The endings of a whole piece and its most important sections are marked by the
largest gong (gong ageng), whose deep rich timbre resonates with all of the overtones of the other
instruments.23 Smaller gongs punctuate the endings of intermediary sections. Of various sizes, shapes,
and sounds, their names are onomatopoeicketuk, kempul, kempyang, kenong, gong.24 Each player is
constantly aware of the colotomic structure and always expects the arrivals of the appropriate gong
markers at the ends of phrases and sections. At the very end, players all listen attentively for the gong
ageng and even adjust the timing of their own final notes in deference to it. Arrivals of endings require
ritards in preparation. Changes in iramas require changes in tempo to accommodate more or less
rhythmic activity. These tempo changes are usually directed by hand drums (in loud style) or by the
rebab (in soft style). Players all listen for rhythmic cues rather than visually following a conductor.

The preceding overview summarizes the basic elements of gamelan music as documented by twentieth-
century ethnomusicologists.25 Claude Debussy summarizes his own impressions of gamelan in 1913:

There used to beindeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still aresome
wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the
eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen
to with great care, without ever having consulted any . . . dubious treatises. Their traditions are
preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own
contribution century by century. Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make
Palestrina seem like child's play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one's European
ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more
than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.26

Debussy presents his impressions even more clearly in his 1903 composition Pagodes. It is the first in a
set of three pieces entitled Estampes,27 meaning stamp, or in the world of visual art, a print made by
pressing a carved block into ink and then stamping it onto paper. In Pagodes he presents an aural rather
than visual print of the gamelan.

His choice of title has puzzled many scholars, since Java actually is not a land of pagodas.28 Debussy's
ongoing fascination with oriental art (especially Japanese woodcut prints), his re-exposure to the
gamelan at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, and the recent return of a friend from a trip to China and
Vietnam may all have provided him with general reminders of the Orient while he was composing
Pagodes.29 Yet his specific choice of title remains a mystery. A solution to the puzzle might be found in
observing, as Debussy would have, the pagoda-like towers at the entrance to the Javanese village, the
pagoda of Angkor Wat right next door, and the many curved pagoda-appearing roofs in the vicinity at
the 1889 Exposition. (See Figure 2.)

Significantly, Debussy chose the piano as his medium. He was a fine pianist himself, trained in the
traditional concert repertory during his student years at the Paris Conservatory. He had also developed
considerable mastery in orchestral composing, with its consequent attention to instrumental timbres.
During the decade or so beyond schooling his concept of the piano seems to have evolved from the
nineteenth century ideal as a "singing" instrument to that of a "coloristic" instrument. Pagodes is his first
piece to fully embrace the piano's innate percussive nature, its mechanism producing sound via hammers
hitting strings.30

A marvelously sensitive pianist, Debussy often amazed listeners with the sounds he drew from the
instrument. Several of his contemporaries have commented on this aspect of his music and his playing:

The power of the magic will be understood by all who have once heard this supernatural piano in
which sounds are born of the impact of the hammers, with no brushing against the strings, then rise
up into transparent air, which combines but does not blend them, and evaporate in iridescent mists.
Monsieur Debussy tames the keyboard with a spell which is beyond the reach of any of our
No words can give an idea of the way in which he played . . . . Not that he had actual virtuosity, but
his sensibility of touch was incomparable; he made the impression of playing directly on the strings
of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism; the effect was a miracle of poetry. Moreover, he
used the pedals in a way all his own.32

Debussy insisted upon . . . the proper way to strike a note on the piano. 'It must be struck in a
peculiar way,' he would say, 'otherwise the sympathetic vibrations of the other notes will not be
heard quivering distantly in the air.' Debussy regarded the piano as the Balinese [sic] musicians
regard their gamelan orchestras. He was interested not so much in the single tone that was
obviously heard when a note was struck, as in the patterns of resonance which that tone sets up
around itself.33

In Pagodes the piano simulates the timbre of the gamelan. The first measure (see Example 1, which
contains all of the musical excerpts in the following discussion) presents a perfect fifth, low B-F#,
followed by the same fifth an octave higher and a seeming discord F#-G# higher yet, all played
pianissimo and all blurred together by two pedals (soft pedal and damper pedal). The result is an
overtone-rich composite sound evocative of a gong. Debussy's notation in the ensuing measures of tied
bass whole notes that the pianist cannot literally hold (because the hands must move to play other notes)
requires the use of pedal to sustain them. In effect the gong continues to vibrate quietly through the
melodic material above it. Lest the pianist attempt to clean the blurry sound, Debussy marks the
continuation of pedal with dotted lines under extended passages such as mm. 11-14 and mm. 27-31.

He suggests various touches that evoke the gamelan's percussive, shimmering qualities.34 Numerous
articulation markings such as slurs, tenutos, and dots permeate the score. Not marks of expression, these
instead indicate how to strike the piano keys. The sound qualities achieved by differing strokes and the
use of pedal resemble the sound qualities of the gamelan instruments. For example, at m. 11 the bright
ping of notes struck staccato contrasts the mellow bong of those struck tenuto, thus distinguishing the
timbre of the two simultaneous melodies. The Western classical meanings of sharply separated notes
(staccato), stressed long notes (tenuto), and smoothly connected notes (slur), melt instead into
marvelously vibrating resonances of the gamelan when engulfed in Debussy's pedals.

The piano, with its equal-tempered chromatic tuning, cannot possibly reproduce gamelan scales. But the
piano's black-key pentatonic scale roughly simulates the five-note slendro: it has no half steps, and its
whole steps and minor thirds approximate slendro's intervals somewhere in between. Even its two larger
intervals simulate the not-quite-equidistant spacing found in slendro tuning. Debussy chooses the
pentatonic scale for most of the motives and sonorities in Pagodes.35 For example, it produces the G#
C# D# F# G# motifs in mm. 3, 11, and 27. A different pentatonic grouping A# C# D# F# G# appears in
the upper voice at m. 15. Yet another moves to a new position B G# F# D# in m. 19. Their differing
focal tones and ranges may even allude to the patets Debussy would have sensed in Javanese music.

The texture of Pagodes comprises stratified layers in the fashion of authentic gamelan music. The
opening fourteen measures illustrate this. Measure 1 introduces an imaginary gong ageng, on the low B.
At m. 3 a pentatonic motive begins in sixteenth notes at high register, perhaps calling to mind the timbre
of a metallophone. Its agile cengkok-like pattern moves between and around notes of an imaginary
skeleton that proceeds by conjunct motion in an arch up and back down. At m. 7 a central-register
melody enters with a down-up arch in unadorned conjunct eighth notes, functioning perhaps as the
balungan in this imaginary gamelan. The smooth contour and quietness might evoke the bowed string
timbre of the rebab. At m. 11 another mid-register melody copies the stepwise down-up arching contour
of its predecessor in m. 7, now in quarter notes and positioned higher in the pentatonic scale such that
the "steps" are actually somewhat larger as in the slendro scale. Along with it appears another upper
register rendition of the original cengkok pattern, only now in eighth notes instead of sixteenths. In sum,
the first fourteen measures of Pagodes build up multiple layers in low, middle and high registers in
slow, moderate and fast rhythmic activity, all layers presenting some plain or elaborated version of an
arch-shaped conjunct skeleton.

The stratified effect continues throughout the piece. At m. 23 two layers present a variant of the original
cengkok pattern arching in opposite directions with staggered entrances over a recurring gong. At m. 27
yet another version appears in two voices a fourth/fifth apart (constituting parallel motion within the
pentatonic scale and the four-note patet in use here) in triplet eighth notes above a slower rendition in
quarter notes.36 In the coda, at m. 80, a new layer appears in the fastest motion of all, thirty-second
notes. The entire piece comprises stratified layers distinguished by register and rhythmic activity (and
timbre in the hands of a skillful pianist), yet always blended because they all accommodate the
pentatonic scale and the same arching skeleton contour.

Debussy indicates the performance style as dlicatement et presque sans nuances (delicately and almost
without nuance). The levelness evokes Javanese restraint rather than Western expressiveness. Those
dynamic shadings marked with hairpins in the smooth melodies of mm. 15-18 and 33-36 simulate only
the subtle inflections in volume that, for example, the rebab might naturally make. The balance among
layers is equal, with no single part brought out over the rest of the texture. The level blending contrasts
with Western performance practice, and requires careful attention on the part of the pianist not to play
with an expressiveness or prominence inappropriate to the gamelan.

On the other hand, Debussy does mark differing dynamic levels at phrase boundaries throughout the
score. For example, the opening ten-measure portion is pianissimo; the change to piano in m. 11
coincides with a new bass note and octave reinforcement in middle and upper layers. The passage at m.
37 is piano and its repetition at m. 41 is fortissimo. The whole coda, mm. 80-98, is pianissimo. The
distinctly contrasting dynamic levels effectively simulate the gamelan's changing instrumentation, and
especially the contrast between loud and soft styles.

Debussy punctuates the large colotomic rhythmic structure of Pagodes with his own gongs. The gong
ageng is low B. It provides the final note of the piece (m. 98) and the culminating note of many phrases
(as in mm. 5, 7, and 9). Intermediary structural punctuations are provided by other bass notes. At m. 11
the punctuating gong moves to G#. In mm. 19-23, bass notes return generally stepwise from that G#
down to B once again, in one-measure time spans, half and quarter those of the earlier gongs, reflecting
the orderly subdivision of Javanese gatras. The descending bass notes simulate the intermediary ketuk,
kempul, kempyang, and kenong arrivals in gamelan music.37 Sensing these gongs as endings, not
beginnings, may not be intuitive to Westerners. Yet an importantly different rhythmic interpretation
would emerge if a bass downbeat were to energize the start of a new phrase rather than finish the
preceding one.38

Debussy also captures the changing tempos that signal important events in gamelan music. For example,
in the opening section of the piece he indicates a ritard just before each arrival of the low gong in mm. 5,
7, and 9. In mm. 19-33 he imitates the gradual tempo change that guides gamelan players from one
irama to another. Animez un peu at m. 19 moves to Toujours anim at m. 23 as the rhythmic calmness of
one passage moves toward more complex cross-rhythms in the next. Continuing the transition, Revenez
au 1o Tempo at m. 27, ritard at m. 30, and Sans lenteur at m. 33 prepare for the arrival of new thirty-
second note activity m. 37.39

Pagodes convincingly simulates a Javanese gamelan. Yet it does not merely copy. Within Pagodes
aspects of both Eastern and Western musical thinking merge. For instance, while Debussy successfully
substitutes the pentatonic scale for gamelan's slendro, the principal G# C# D# F# G# motif of m. 3
actually limits itself to only four of the pitches (appropriately, as in a Javanese patet). The missing pitch
appears in the middle-register melody of m. 7, but it fluctuates between B and A#. Several possibilities
arise. Perhaps these two represent the actual missing pitch in the slendro scale, which is somewhere
between them. Perhaps they simulate microtonally inflected vocal tones. But perhaps they also carry
Western harmonic significance irrelevant to gamelan: B is tonic and A# is its leading tone; A# then
becomes dominant of the dominant as the (Western) tonality modulates from B major to the relative
minor g#.

Gamelan music is entirely polyphonic, not chordal. Yet Debussy employs chords in Pagodes. How he
does so reveals his sensitivity to both gamelan timbre and Western functionality. The very first chord
provides an example. Its purpose in a Western sense is to establish the tonic B. But it fails to establish
the B major tonic triad as one would expect in a Western context. Rather, B appears with its natural fifth
F#, no third, and discordant G# a step away (actually an upper partial in the B harmonic series). The
pedaled pianissimo result simulates the overtone-rich ringing of the gong ageng. Furthermore the
perceived rhythm of m. 1, quarterdotted quarterquartereighth, provides not a Western
syncopation but, instead, a softly resonant vibration like that of a real gong ageng, which one almost
feels rather than hears.40 The vibrations continue to resonate, as does a Javanese gong, in the ensuing
eight measures of offbeat quarter note chords. The chords themselves exhibit Western tonal function as
well as exotic sound. The B, B7, and E chords of m. 3, 5 and 7 can be interpreted as IV7/IVIV in the
key of B major. They lead to bass D#G# in m. 10-11, Vi of the relative minor key. Yet it is their
rich color rather than their tonal function that seems aurally more captivating as they blend into the quiet
pedaled sonority.

The passage in mm. 15-18 harmonizes its arching top-voice melody with dyads and triads created from
chromatic, not pentatonic, linear counterpoint. The lower two voices complement the up-down contour
of the pentatonic melody with down-up nearly parallel chromatic motion (sometimes arriving at unisons
single-stemmed in the score). The contrary motion and intervallic diminution in use are two venerated
Western polyphonic techniques. Yet the choice of chromatic pitches in this passage contrasts with the
pentatonic content of the entire rest of the piece. Timbre again suggests a possible reason: the
shimmering quality of the discords subtly evokes those intentional mistunings of gamelan unisons.

Rhythmic aspects, too, complement authentic gamelan practice. For example Debussy chooses not only
eighth notes, sixteenths and thirty-seconds as the counterpoint to quarter notes, whose ratios all produce
the rhythmic doublings characteristic of gamelan iramas; he also chooses triplet-eighths and triplet-,
quadruplet- and quintuplet- thirty-seconds, which have no place in traditional gamelan music. And these
shift among each other, as in the sections at m. 11 with both duplet- and triplet-eighths, and at m. 80
where triplet-, quadruplet- and quintuplet- thirty-seconds fluctuate.41 With these superposed shifting
rhythms, spread over multiple octaves, Debussy creates the illusion of complexity among many
contrapuntal layers as in gamelan practice, yet composes music that is actually playable by one pianist
on one instrument.

His sensitivity to the capabilities of the pianist emerges likewise in mm. 37-44.The crescendo and
repeated quick cengkoks in mm. 39-40 simulate the addition of extra instruments in preparation for the
loud phrase at m. 41, but the pianist is spared the technical difficulties of playing fast octaves or cross
rhythms. The fragments of quick notes in mm. 42 and 44 provide the illusion, rather than the actuality,
of continuing through slower ones in a fashion readily playable by the pianist.

Phrase structure and form in Pagodes furnish by Western means the necessary organization that is
provided instead by gong phrases and their subdivisions in Javanese music. Pagodes' four-measure
phrase lengths, common to much Western music, fit the gamelan illusion well. Even the two "extra"
measures at the beginning and in mm. 31-32 can be accounted for as an allusion to the gong's prolonged
ringing. Yet the Western ABA form with coda42 creates a unifying large-scale structure that is not at all
characteristic of Javanese design, which is governed entirely by perfectly regular gatras. The Western
classical form creates the vehicle for carrying the impression of the exotic gamelan effectively to
Debussy's intended audience.43


Placing Pagodes in the framework of Debussy's other works provides perspective on his evolution as a
composer. At this formative time in his life, after his studies at the Paris Conservatory (1872-1884) and
his time in Italy as winner of the Prix de Rome (1885-1887), the 1889 Exposition provided exposure to a
completely new kind of music.

Some of his earliest compositions had already revealed experiments with non-traditional elements such
as pentatonic scales, ostinato, static harmony, and stratified textures.44 Such experiments shaped a style
that was not always appreciated by musical experts: Printemps, his required submission as winner of the
Prix de Rome, earned him an admonishment in 1887 to "be on his guard against that vague
'Impressionism' which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art."45

Rather than creating an entirely new style, the timbre, tuning, layering, and rhythm he found in Javanese
music instead nourished elements already latent in his writing. Pagodes did not immediately follow
Debussy's encounter at the 1889 Exposition. Fourteen years intervened. Those years were dominated by
the composition of his opera Pellas et Mlisande, which he says "took me twelve years to write."46
Other works of the time include the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, begun while the Exposition was
still on,47 the String Quartet, Prlude l'aprs-midi d'un faune, Chansons de Bilitis, Nocturnes, and
Pour le piano. All of these contain some elements attributable to the gamelan, yet none specifically
evokes one.

Pagodes of 1903 is the first of Debussy's piano compositions alluding to the Orient, and the first that
represents the Impressionistic style for which he is today admired. His friend Robert Godet recalls those
intervening years:
At first, in the three or four years [sic] that passed between the Exposition of 1889 and the
publication of Pagodes (first date, barring error, of the works bearing the imprint of "exoticism")
one had the occasion to submit to the composer numerous documents collected in diverse places of
Asia and the Islands of Sonde [now Indonesia], this in devout care to "orient" (this is for once the
correct word) his memory or fantasy.48

Significantly, the same time frame, 1903-05, also saw the composition of La Mer for orchestra,
Debussy's one other work that alludes specifically to the gamelan.49 Beyond that time characteristics
inspired by the gamelantimbre, exotic scales, layering, rhythmic designappear in virtually all of
Debussy's mature works.50 His revolutionary treatment of the piano, stemming from its percussive rather
than its singing nature, has led to some of the most important music in today's piano repertory.


In the century-plus since its composition, Pagodes has provided enjoyment to countless listeners and
performers, and material for study to myriad analysts.51 The influence of Javanese gamelan extends far
beyond Debussy as well. Works by composers after him as diverse as Ravel, Bartk, Poulenc, Britten,
McPhee, Eichheim, Cowell, Cage, Harrison, and Reich all owe inspiration to the gamelan.52 Today we
can readily access recordings, pictures, and scholarly writings about gamelan music provided by more
than a century's roster of ethnomusicologists. Debussy's sole source of exposure was the Javanese music
at the Paris Expositions Universelles. For him there were no research documents to read, no instruction
in how to play the instruments, and no travel to Java. Yet he clearly absorbed the elements of gamelan
music that ethnomusicologists have documented. Without endeavoring to explain these elements, he
instead incorporated them into a gamelan of his own making, one created for Western listeners and

A year before its composition he wrote that music "is not limited to a more or less exact representation
of nature, but rather to the mysterious affinity between Nature and Imagination."53 Pagodes is not a
transcription, not an exact representation of nature. It is an imaginative creation. Arguably his first
Impressionistic composition for piano, Pagodes presents not some vague impression but, instead, a
remarkably accurate and evocative rendition of the Eastern gamelan on the Western piano.