Debussy’s String Quartet and His Influence on Symphonic Music

Subject: Art
Pages: 7
Words: 1672
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD


Opening statement and introduction of the topic

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was very instrumental in shaping the development of the present day string quartet. His decision to move away from Wagnerism and introduce a new element of impressionism into music was groundbreaking at the time (Lesure 4).

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According to Haylock, “Debussy is one of the two most prominent composers in the Impressionist era” (Haylock 100). Indeed, he literally introduced the concept of impressionism into music, changing the landscape of the latter drastically.

Overview of the main points presented in the paper

The uniqueness of Debussy’s style can be explained with references to his personal composition method and harmonic progression. To be more specific, it is the use of parallel intervals that makes the music sound so unique compared to the art pieces of the era (DeVoto 420).

Debussy also used a unique approach to manipulating forms and instruments’ various nuances and colors. At this point, an obvious parallel between the techniques of the impressionist painters and the approach chosen by Debussy can be traced (Greenbaum 345).

Thesis statement

The String Quartet is composed during the period when Debussy only started to realize the ideals of Impressionism in his works, and the composition can serve as an effective example in order to examine the changes in Debussy’s approaches to his personal composition method, to emphasizing the harmonic progression, to choosing specific forms to use in the work, and to the orchestration techniques.

The impact of Debussy on the symphonic music is significant, and it can be explained not only with the composer’s techniques and approaches but also with his focus on reflecting impressions in the works because Debussy resolved the issue of linking the tradition and progress in the context of symphonic music while referring to new unexpected approaches.

Debussy’s method of composition

Traditionally, scholars identify the method of composition used by Debussy as experimental. With the adoption of the specified method, the composer was capable of reinventing the existing music tropes and creating new interpretations of the sound.

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The impact of Impressionism on Debussy’s composition.  As it has been stressed above, Impressionism was the basis, on which Debussy developed his own music genre. The composer literally transferred the key Impressionist concepts into music.

Rejection of traditional principles. Naturally, the incorporation of new principles into the process of composing music presupposed that Debussy should build an entirely new approach to the process. Particularly, the introduction of the elements that broke harmonic patterns, should be mentioned as the key feature of Debussy’s approach.

Debussy chose to reflect the striking Impressionist ideals in the inimitable music (Lelutiu 334). As it has been stressed above, the composer never actually copied the impressionist style – instead, he interpreted it, allowing it to flow into the process of music-making naturally.

Debussy “was surprisingly ambivalent about being labelled an Impressionist composer; he was irritated by the term but proud to be described a disciple of Monet” (Trezise 5). Even to date, there are ongoing heated discussions concerning the reasonability of using the term “Impressionism” when talking about Debussy’s music (Day-O’Connell 228).

Choice of vivid colors, textures, and clear melodies. The unique choice of the texture of melody seems to be the trademark of the genre created by Debussy. The pentatonic practice, which the composer followed, provided an opportunity for creating the “plagal leading-tone” (Day-O’Connell 225), which is characteristic of all Debussy’s compositions.

Debussy created a distinctive sound, which was easily recognizable (Trezise 179).

Debussy’s melodies are characterized by “the rapid colouristic changes” in textures (Trezise 181). To be more specific, Debussy made alterations to the original structure of the traditional symphony pattern.

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String Quartet (1893) as an example of Debussy’s specific approach to composition. The famous String Quartet is a graphic example of Debussy’s approach towards composing. Though it was a return to the chamber music genre, Debussy still pursued his concept of Impressionism in music (Wheeldon 651).

The String Quartet is unique because of the use of rigid shifts typical for Impressionistic music patterns (Fulcher 54). Despite the fact that Debussy himself preferred to avoid the term “Impressionism” when describing anything related to his music, the rapid and unexpected shifts in his music were a perfect example of an Impressionist approach.

Changes in the work’s movements are surprising and unexpected (Morrison 312). The sharp swings in the mood of the composition and the unexpected shifts in the tone are nearly challenging for the standards of the era.

Harmonic language and progression used by Debussy. Nevertheless, describing Debussy’s music as chaotic would be quite a stretch. The composer, in fact, incorporated the principles of harmony into the process, thus, softening the rough edges and making the melody flow.

The approach to using chords When using chords in the process of composing music, Debussy relied on the parallel chords approach.

Improving the approach to using chords in Debussy’s works. Not only did Debussy improve the existing approach to chords – he perfected it, making his music as expressive and at the same time enigmatical as possible.

Debussy chose to accentuate his melodic patterns with the help of parallel chords (Trezise 82). The aforementioned parallel chords allowed for introducing the intervallic structure into the composition, thus, creating the premises for altering the existing patterns.

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The focus on the root position chords added to the melodic harmony of Debussy’s works (Fulcher 83). Experiments with tonality helped Debussy develop a strategy based on focusing on root position.

Domination of seventh and ninth chords in compositions. The chromatic changes made to the seventh and the ninth chord soon became the trademark of Debussy’s works.

Domination of seventh and ninth chords in Debussy’s compositions attracted the attention of composers and listeners (Fulcher 85). The patterns created by Debussy were both a challenge to and a unique interpretation of the traditional school postulates.

It was important to note how the composer avoided dissonance and achieved the harmony.

Harmony of the String Quartet. The string Quartet incorporated the traditional concepts of harmony and the innovations suggested by Debussy.

Harmonic progressions in the String Quartet. The problem of dissonance was one of the key issues that Debussy was working on..

Debussy’s forms

Forms actively used by Debussy in compositions. Debussy often used a sonata form to add impression to the work.

Rapid changes of slow and lively forms contributed to creating the unique vivid melodic pattern (McFarland 296).

Four string quartet movements of the String Quartet

The first movement. Animé et très décidé

The second movement. Assez vif et bien rythmé

The third movement. Andantino, doucement expressif

The fourth movement. Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion

The cyclical structure

The reiteration of the four movements defined the cyclical structure.

The role of the cyclical structure. The cyclical structure defined the difference between Debussy’s approach and the traditional one.

The cyclical structure contributes to making the composition unified.

The use of the cyclical structure is a characteristic feature of Debussy’s style (Fulcher 83).

The String Quartet as a perfectly structured and unified work.

The reiteration of the cycle created a pattern that made the String Quartet harmonic.

The String Quartet can be discussed as a perfectly structured work because of the application of a unique cyclic principle to the composition.

Debussy successfully integrates the main motif from the first movement to the second and fourth movements (Morrison 312).

Approach to orchestration. Debussy relied on the alterations to the traditional orchestral sound.

Debussy’s use of unusual orchestral combinations. The unique combinations were the trademark of Debussy’s style.

Impact of the pre-Raphaelites on Debussy’s works. The Pre-Raphaelites movement in painting inspired Debussy’s transfer to Impressionism in music.

Manipulation of lyrical tones, string and brass sounds. The specified tools were used for a different coloring of the melody.

Orchestration in the String Quartet. The orchestration was based solely on the principle of the above-mentioned concept of the four-element cyclic structure.

Approaches to creating the exceptional melodic pattern. The unique melodic pattern was created with the help of breaks within the traditional structure.

Emphasized instruments’ nuances and colors. Debussy put a rather strong emphasis on the use of gongs and metallophones.

Debussy’s influence on symphonic music. Debussy made it obvious that a symphony could incorporate a variety of color and at the same time retain its traditional structure.

New vision of manipulating melodies and textures. As it has been stressed above, Debussy reinvented the concept of texture and melody in music by incorporating the elements of gamelan and ensemble into his compositions.

Debussy’s revolutionary vision of orchestration. Apart from a change in the understanding of texture and melodies, Debussy also altered the process of orchestration by emancipating it and, therefore, making the orchestral pieces enigmatic, as critics defined them (“Playing with Color” para. 2).


By incorporating the key Impressionist concepts into the system of music composing principles that were dominant at the time, Claude Debussy created an entirely new genre of music, which represented a unique mixture of the traditional use of stylistic devices and the rethinking of the tools used for music composing.

Debussy’s approach to composition and style

When it comes to defining how exactly Debussy created his music, one must mention the fact that the composer preferred to create the patterns with frequent interruptions; as a result, the chaotic elements finally fell into their pieces only to dissemble once again, creating a unique sound.

Uniqueness of the String Quartet in the context of the Impressionist ideas

Even in terms of the Impressionist ideas, the String Quartet was entirely original. It could be interpreted as a cyclic structure with four key elements that were intertwined with a single theme.

The general influence of Debussy on the symphonic music

The influence, which Debussy had on the symphonic music, was huge The composer created a new genre, which stretched the boundaries of music composition in general and allowed for new concepts to emerge. Thus, it can be assumed that, with the help of Debussy, it became possible for the symphonic music to evolve further.

Works Cited

Day-O’Connell, Jeremy. “Debussy, Pentatonicism, and the Tonal Tradition.” Music Theory Spectrum – The Journal of the Society for Music Theory 31.2 (2009), 225–261.

DeVoto, Marl. “Some Aspects of Parallel Harmony in Debussy.” In Liber Amicorum Isabelle Cazeaux: Symbols, Parallels and Discoveries in Her Honor. Pendragon Press, 2005. 459–485. Print.

Fulcher, Jane. Debussy and His World. New York: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Greenbaum, Matthew. “Debussy, Wolpe and Dialectical Form.” Contemporary Music Review 27.2 (2008), 343–359.

Haylock, Julian. “Debussy String Quartet in G minor SAINT-SAÄ’NS String Quartet no.1 in E minor Ravel String Quartet in F major”. The Strad Magazine 124.1477 (2013): 100-112. Print.

Lesure, Francois. “Debussy, (Achille­)Claude.” Site Pessoal de Hugo Leonardo Ribeiro. 2014. Web.

Lelutiu, Radu. “Debussy String Quartet”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 35.5 (2012): 334-338. Print.

McFarland, Mark. “Debussy: The Origins of a Method”. Journal of Music Theory 48.2 (2004): 295–324. Print.

Morrison, Daniel. “String Quartet in g/String Quartet No.1./String Quartet in F”. Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors 37.1 (2013): 311-320. Print.

“Playing with Color.” Gramophone. 2012. Web.

Trezise, Simon. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Wheeldon, Marianne. “Debussy and La Sonate Cyclique.” The Journal of Musicology 22.4 (2005), 644–679.