A Composer in Tune With Water

I was alerted to an interesting writing challenge by reading Suze Obsolete Childhood’s post, “Wednesday Music: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”.  I was happy to find this challenge and I thought it would be quite different from my last post about General Relativity and the orbit of Mercury.  Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque is a four-movement suite for piano.  Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918), was a French composer and the founder of and the most important representative in the Impressionist movement (which creates an idea, or shows the essence of something) in music.  Debussy had an unparalleled skill for capturing effects of light and water.  The four movements include Prelude, Menuet, Clair de Lune and Passepied.

Debussy composed the Préludes with sounds rather than notes which changed music history and this is said to be quintessentially Debussy.  The harmonies call to mind the aspect of his ‘floating world’.  It is not their picturesque qualities, that liberated music from the domination by functional harmony which had prevailed for three centuries.  The ‘Voiles’ from Préludes Book I, may have been intended to create an impression of ‘veils’ or ‘sails’,  but it does this by almost exclusive use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales.  That doesn’t make it strictly atonal but it does set it free from the triad to float wherever the movement of the dancer or the wind on the water takes it.

The most famous movement of the Suite is the third called Clair de Lune.  There’s a kind of glow to it that makes us imagine a setting, perhaps, of the moon on water.  Google featured Clair de Lune in a picture that seems to propel the animated boats down the Seine, illuminated by the light of the moon where music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.

Another water related music piece written by Claude Debussy in 1905, Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water) is a musical description of rippling water, which is an Impressionistic piece, meaning that it expresses emotions and senses by making use of non-functional harmony and ambiguous key signatures, its tonality being mainly non-diatonic and usually pertaining to a particular sense.  La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra), or simply La mer (The Sea), is another orchestral composition by Debussy and it became one of his most admired and frequently performed orchestral works.

Claude Debussy´s piece “The Sunken (Submerged) Cathedral” tells the story from an ancient myth about a cathedral, submerged under water off the Island Ys, after a whole city on a stormy night has sunken into the sea.  The submerged cathedral rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming and the organ playing from across the sea as the great cathedral rises from the ocean.

Debussy’s parents wanted him to join the navy and he wanted to be a sailor, until he started learning how to play the piano.  He spent most of his time as a composer far away from large bodies of water and he drew his seascape inspiration from paintings by Claude Monet and literature.  Debussy spurns the more obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and naturally occurring storms in favor of the swaying movement of waves and the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray.

Claude Debussy – La Mer

Written for Wednesday Music Debussy’s ‘Suite Bergamasque’ hosted by Fluent Historian.

6 thoughts on “A Composer in Tune With Water

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