Claude Debussy was one of the most famous composers of the Early Modern Era. Many believe Debussy was an impressionist composer, but his music is closer to symbolism. Debussy’s music often evokes a feeling, mood, or emotion in listeners or paints a scene in their head. This was a stylistic trait of Debussy’s and can be found in his piece Nuages, which is the first movement of his Nocturnes, an orchestral piece.
Nuages exemplifies the stylistic traits of Debussy as well as the Early Modern Era. Throughout Nuages there is a constant interaction of timbre and motive, scale type, and “other elements to create a musical image” for the listener (History of Western Music, page 794). In the beginning of the piece (0.00 till about 0.26) one can hear a continuing pattern of fifths and thirds that give the impression of movement but there is no clear harmonic direction. This gives the listener an image of clouds moving. This theme repeats throughout the movement but is slightly altered. The English Horn part does not change throughout Nuages and its theme does not pass around to other instruments. The motive of the English Horn is never developed or transposed but it sometimes has notes omitted. All it does is rise and fall through an octatonic scale. Debussy used a lot of scales in his compositions such as pentatonic scales and whole tone scales. Debussy liked to experiment to see if he could produce different images for a listener. He was a great innovator of music in the Early Modern era – Nuages is a perfect example on how he achieved his goal of symbolism. Throughout Nuages the listener feels a sense of contemplation, just like one would get by watching clouds move in the sky.
Comparing Debussy’s Nuages to another piece of the Early Modern Era, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), one can hear many differences. In Vaughn Williams’ piece, there is a tune that appears (A Tallis hymn) revived by Vaughn Williams and is placed throughout the piece. The piece states the theme once and then it develops. There is really no theme or direction in Debussy’s piece where there is a definite harmonic direction in Vaughan Williams.
I like Debussy but I am not a huge fan. I do enjoy trying to hear what images he is trying to portray in his music and I could definitely see clouds floating by when listening to Nuages. I absolutely love Vaughan Williams and I was happy I was able to compare the two composers and their works.
Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Eighth Edition. (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, New York). 2010.
Crocker, Richard. A History of Musical Style. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1966.
“Claude Debussy.” Listening Outlines. McGraw-Hill Companies, 1998. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/music/kamien/student/olc/29.htm
Debussy, Claude. Nuages. Score. IMSLP. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/2/2a/IMSLP08867-Debussy-Nuages.pdf
“Nuages (Clouds) Music by Claude Debussy.” Youtube Video. Posted by “barje11.” Uploaded August 18, 2013. Accessed April 28, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7xlmfAtw0M
“Vaughan-Williams – Tallis Fantasy.” Youtube Video. Posted by “bartje11.” Uploaded January 15, 2013. Accessed April 28, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAtx578yaZ8