Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.” This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into …

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Debussy’s “Bruyères” from Préludes, Book 2: Krystian Zimerman

Composed between 1909 and 1913, Claude Debussy’s twenty four solo piano Préludes are divided into two books. Unlike the Preludes of Chopin or J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, they do not form a sequential harmonic procession. Instead, they float ephemerally between traditional tonality and modal harmony, and the pentatonic and whole tone scales. They emerge as dreamy, atmospheric vignettes. Bruyères is the fifth Prélude from Book II. Translating as “heather,” it “evokes pastoral bliss, an Arcadian …

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Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse,” Pascal Rogé

The 1717 painting L’embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicts a merry party of lovers arriving on (or departing from) the Mediterranean island of Cythère. In ancient mythology, Cythère was known as the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of erotic love. The version of the painting which hangs in the Louvre shows the revelers flanked by bright dancing cupids and a serenely gazing statue of Venus. Watteau’s painting served as an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s …

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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 …

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Debussy’s “Rêverie,” Zoltán Kocsis

Rêverie (“daydream”) is music of the young Claude Debussy. Written in 1890, this atmospheric piece for solo piano anticipates the composer’s later works. At the same time, I hear a fleeting echo (perhaps coincidental) of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. As with Saint-Saëns, who downplayed his 1886 Carnival of the Animals suite as frivolity, Debussy later turned his back on Rêverie, writing to the publisher Fromont, I regret very much your decision to publish Rêverie. I wrote it in a …

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Fauré and Debussy: Two Charming Settings of Paul Verlaine’s “Mandoline”

Gabriel Fauré’s 1891 song cycle, Cinq mélodies “de Venise”, Op. 58, begins with music which is as charming and infectious as it is brief. Mandoline is a setting of a poem from the 1869 collection, Fêtes galantes, by the French Symbolist, Paul Verlaine. The poem was inspired by a series of paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicting (as Robert Gartside writes) “18th century nobility in their fêtes champètres, those elegant picnics redolent of a mixture of gaiety, …

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