Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory.

We enter this hazy new world in Brouillards (“Mists” or “Fog”), which opens the second book of Debussy’s solo piano Préludes, completed in 1913. In the first bars, the left hand hovers around “white key” C major while opposing “black key” E-flat minor arpeggios emerge in the left hand. As with Strauss’ Zarathustra, the clarity of C major becomes shrouded in fog. However, here distinct keys melt away into mere tonal regions. This fluidity of tonal centers has been labeled pan-tonality. The final moments of Strauss’ tone poem set up a harmonic duel between two distinct opposing keys. In Brouillards, there are moments of polytonality, in which two simultaneous keys blend together to form something new. The result is a sensuous musical dreamscape which makes us forget about where we are going. Instead, we drift from moment to moment.

In his analysis of the piece, Debussy’s friend Robert Schmitz writes,

Many are the combinations, successive and simultaneous, of this plurality of keys, in constant friction, never resolved—like fog the harmonic texture is in constant evolution, but recognizes no beginning or ending.

Here is a concert recording featuring Krystian Zimerman:

Recordings

  • Debussy: Préludes, Krystian Zimerman Amazon

Featured Image: Waterloo Bridge. Effect of Fog, Claude Monet (1903)

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality”

  1. Here in the Northwest, fog hovers off-coast and comes in and out in the evening and morning – unlike valley fog, say in California, our fog, you can see it move among the trees, and you can drive up a hill and get above it as if you were flying an airplane, or go under it and get gray, and Debussy does all of those things.

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