Debussy Piano Trio In G Major Analysis Essay

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A Comparative Study Of Early Debussy And Rachmaninoff

An analysis of the two composer`s harmonic and rhythmic experimentation in their early works (unfortunately the website`s formatting does not allow the insertion of examples from the score)

Date : 18/06/2014

In this essay I will be comparing two composers who would later create highly individual and successful styles for themselves in the 20th century, but through early pieces they wrote whilst still finding their voices as composers. I wanted to look at two pieces in more detail that were personal favourites of mine, as well as pieces I had been exposed to in my music lessons in less detail than this format allows. Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Novgorod, Russia in 1873. He was sent to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory aged 10, and quite early on he was already displaying an individual musical style, building on and developing the influence of the great Russian composers he followed such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He developed a particularly strong admiration of - and even a friendship with - Tchaikovsky, and the composer's death in 1893 sent the young Rachmaninoff into a deep grief. In a burst of creativity he channelled this into his Trio Elegiaque No. 2 which displays the emotional force and extreme harmonic style he would later develop in his maturity. Claude Debussy was born in 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, France. He studied at the Paris Conservatory, and despite an early love for the Romantics, such as Wagner, he quickly moved away from the norms of classical music at the time. His early efforts at innovation, as he was finding increasing success and renown, often showed themselves in small works, as he rebelled against the increasing trend for sprawling and grand works, and his Two Arabesques - specifically the far more popular first (written in 1888) - show this phase of his career very clearly: it is a solo piano piece, small and conventional in form, but it makes heavy use of original and innovative rhythms and harmonies which later became Debussy's main legacy. An arabesque in some way is expected to reflect Arabian art and designs, but this connection is often stretched by many composers and the only real rule of thumb is that an arabesque is highly melodic, and light-hearted in mood. The first bars of the First Arabesque follow this expectation completely. In common time, at a tempo andantino con moto, which is slightly quicker than walking pace, and marked quietly at piano the piece opens with light arpeggios in E major for two bars. This gives an impression of the waving curved patterns that were typical in the European idea of Arab designs. It then develops into a more complex polyphonic texture after two bars, with parallel arpeggios in the two hands weaving underneath a calm melody. From bars 6-10 a new idea is introduced. The left hand plays broken chords whilst the right plays a descending triplet figure, mostly staying on the E pentatonic scale. The blending of the duplets (suggesting simple time) and triplets (suggesting compound time) between the two creates a very prominent cross rhythm, and a consistent ambiguity, as the piece avoids settling into either metre. Although written in simple time, the piece shows a hemiola effect in how it frequently slips into a 12/8 feel. This use of non-classical scales and strange rhythms are typical of the musical impressionism Debussy helped develop. In bar 17 the piece repeats the first bars but with an altered harmony and melody, suggestive of sonata form. The piece develops further, incorporating more complicated harmonies such as an A# diminished 7th chord in bar 15, which shows a brief modulation to the dominant key, B. Sequential movement also appears, with the phrase of bars 21-22 being repeated as a descending sequence in bars 23-24. The structure clearly shows itself to be a kind of ternary form similar to a sonata, as a contrasting section marked tempo rubato with a whole new melody is introduced at bar 39. The first section ends with an E major chord in bar 37, giving a sense of conclusion, but it then moves into the A major middle section. In a sonata the norm would be to modulate to a minor key (such the relative minor, in this case C# minor) for a contrast, but to avoid radically changing the light mood of the arabesque Debussy opts for the sub-dominant major. In the middle section the harmonies become more ambiguous, with the first bar containing a broken A major chord in the right hand and broken B minor chord in the left at the same time, in a brief occurrence of polytonality . At bar 55 this melody is repeated with a descending chromatic scale joining the middle voice on the right hand. At bar 63 the same theme restates itself again in C major, and at bar 65 shows contrary motion. In keeping with the ternary sonata form of the piece, bar 71, marked at the tempo of the first bars, sees a recapitulation of the very first melody in the home key of E major. From there Debussy restates the previous parts of the piece, before moving onto an extended line of sweeping arpeggios including two diminuendos that culminate at a B dominant 7th chord, softly leading in a perfect cadence to the earlier pentatonic figure harmonised in E, before the piece quietly concludes in an E major chord, giving a full sense of completion. The Rachmaninoff Trio apparently shares no similarities - it is written for piano, violin and cello and the Arabesque is a solo piece; it is grave and furious whereas the Arabesque is whimsical. Even though they were written within 5 years the two composers would go onto vastly different styles - Debussy became the most famous Impressionist and Rachmaninoff would become the last great Late Romantic composer. Despite these differences, both pieces are marked by uncommon harmonies and rhythms. The trio opens with a simple 1-bar piano ostinato: a pedal on D, followed by a D minor chord and short, almost moaning chromatic descent. The cello (played arco, with bow) enters with an inverted pedal, with heavy use of legato, as well as a swelling crescendo followed by a diminuendo. In bar 4 a half-diminished chord containing a C# occurs - the sharpened 7th of D harmonic minor. Before bar 61 the same pattern is developed, and a large accelerando, with the strings playing an increasingly dissonant ascending sequence, with heavy upward appogiaturas, leads into a frenzied allegro vivace section at 61. In the first 4 bars of new section, the strings in unison play massive melodic leaps, and several tremolos. The piano part is almost totally atonal, with the right hand playing chords descending in semitones, and the left mostly jumping from an A to an Eb chord - a tritone. Whilst the strings play tremolos the piano is playing an ascending line starting on and accenting the off-beat, creating a highly syncopated feel. Although vastly different, you can a similar experimentation as with Debussy, trying to throw the listener's idea of what the key and rhythm might be. This is shown further at bar 86. Here the piece uses irregular metres - 6/4 and common time alternating. For the first time in the piece Rachmaninoff uses real counterpoint, as the violin and cello play contrasting and equal parts. The violin, played pizzicato, plays a chromatic ostinato; the cello plays a more flowing melody. Meanwhile the piano plays a substantial chordal pattern. Structurally, the piece is difficult to categorise. It fundamentally rests on a few key ideas, which are consistently repeated, but in very different forms, with no section ever being truly repeated - which means all you can consistently say is that the piece is strongly through-composed. Take bars 131-135 for example. From the previously rapid passages, the piece slows to a mere 80 bpm, with a winding, quiet, arpeggio figure. In this very contrasting section, the cello plays an apparently new melody, but in fact it opens with the same 3 note descending phrase as the piano at bar 86, and is actually an adaptation of that whole figure. This kind of imitation links the piece's many moods, keys and tempos together. One of the most extremely contrasting sections occurs immediately after this allegro moderato section. From 155-157, the first two bars of this excerpt, large D major chords are spelled out by the piano, whilst the strings continually move upward in a question answer pattern, suggesting some kind of cadence or resolution, ideally to G major, giving a full V-I perfect resolution. Instead at 157 a thundering A major section follows, marked extremely fast at presto. The chromatic chordal pattern from bar 61 makes a fresh appearance, stopping 0the section from feeling unfamiliar regardless of how unexpected it is. This section makes many contrasts. From bar 160-165 the focus moves from the piano to the strings. The piano at bar 160 cuts off with a very heavy sforzando chord, then followed a by a bar of silence. The piece re-starts as the strings again restate the 3-note pattern the cello had last handled at bar 133, now far more vigorously and in unison at fortissimo, with heavy accenting of every note. In bar 165 the whole trio then drops down to pianissimo. As the piece draws closer to the end Rachmaninoff exploits every opportunity for dynamic contrast - as he runs the risk of tiring out or over-repeating the same melodies this late in the piece, he keeps tension going by more dramatically contrasting the different parts. Debussy is in a similar situation with the first Arabesque, in his recapitulation he doesn't introduce any real new material, but the dynamics alone give variety, with changes in tempo and volume giving the piece new life. The main contrast is in the degree these contrasts can occur - Rachmaninoff writes in a more obviously expressive romantic style, so he can use sudden changes from fortissimo to pianissimo - and in the trio he has different instruments to replay different themes, as opposed to solo piano. One such difference is that Debussy starts and ends the Arabesque quietly and softly, despite the contrasts in that piece. Rachmaninoff, having begun quietly, finishes with a section almost unrecognisable from the start of the piece. The final section is at Allegro Molto, simply "very fast" 192 bpm, the fastest tempo of the piece so far, having begun at 88bpm. But actually this final part is totally related to the whole piece, despite its contrast to what has come before, it rounds everything up perfectly. The pianist plays a version of the chromatic figure from bar 61 on the left hand, augmented to fit into 6/4 rather than common time. The right hand's chord pattern is a simple adaptation of the cello melody from bar 86. In the second bar of this section the cello and violin make a sudden and jarring entrance, which on closer inspection is the frequently-referenced 3 note motif from the piano part at bar 86, but in very close canon between the two. The references are important to the whole structure, but often concealed, and even though the last bar of the movement is not a cadence of any sort, but just a resounding C# in unison, almost totally ignoring any of the conventional cadence points of D minor, the piece ends with a feeling of wholeness. Despite all appearances to the contrary, it works as a coherent and unified whole. This style of misleading the listener - using unfamiliar rhythms and key changes is a fundamental link between these two works. The two composers were in their early stages of their careers and trying to work out new ways to make music interesting. Cross rhythms and time signature changes are one of the most direct ways of achieving this, and both are used extensively by these two composers. At the same time they are used in very different contexts. Rachmaninoff is writing very aggressively and trying to create an effect of clashing different parts, whereas Debussy is going for a gentler, dreamy touch. Ultimately both composers showed a remarkable ingenuity and originality with these early efforts, and although much change took place after them, they both still contain clear and easily identified features of these composer's later styles - in their harmonies, rhythmic techniques, and their own ways of handling and adapting a small amount of melodic material.

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La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) is a prelude written by the French composer Claude Debussy for solo piano. It was published in 1910 as the tenth prelude in Debussy’s first of two volumes of twelve piano preludes each. It is characteristic of Debussy in its form, harmony, and content.

Musical impressionism[edit]

This prelude is an example of Debussy's musical impressionism in that it is a musical depiction of, or allusion to, an image or idea. Debussy quite often named his pieces with the exact image that he was composing about, like La Mer, Des pas sur la neige, or Jardins sous la pluie. In the case of the two volumes of preludes, he places the title of the piece at the end of the piece, either to allow the pianist to respond intuitively and individually to the music before finding out what Debussy intended the music to sound like, or to apply more ambiguity to the music's allusion.[1] Because this piece is based on a legend, it can be considered program music.

Legend of Ys[edit]

This piece is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, 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.[2] Accordingly, Debussy uses certain harmonies to allude to the plot of the legend, in the style of musical symbolism.

To begin the piece, Debussy uses parallel fifths. The first chord of the piece is made up of sonorous Gs and Ds (open fifths). The use of stark, open fifths here allude to the idea of church bells that sound from the distance, across the ocean.[3] The opening measures, marked pianissimo, introduce us to the first series of rising parallel fifth chords, outlining a pentatonic scale. These chords bring to mind two things: 1) the Eastern pentatonic scale, which Debussy heard during a performance of Javanese gamelan music at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris,[4] and 2) medieval chant music, similar to the organa in parallel fifths from the Musica enchiriadis, a 9th-century treatise on music.[5] The shape of the ascending phrase is perhaps a representation of the cathedral's slow emergence from the water.

After the beginning section, Debussy gently brings the cathedral out of the water by modulating to B major, shaping the melody in a wave-like fashion, and including important narrative instructions in measure 16: Peu à peu sortant de la brume (Emerging from the fog little by little). This shows Debussy at his closest manifestation of musical impressionism.[6] Then, after a section marked Augmentez progressivement (Slowly growing), the cathedral has emerged and the grand organ is heard at a dynamic level of fortissimo (measures 28-41). This is the loudest and most profound part of the piece, and is described in the score as Sonore sans dureté. Following the grand entrance and exit of the organ, the cathedral sinks back down into the ocean (measures 62-66) and the organ is heard once more, but from underwater. To attain these effects that reflect images of the castle, most performers use specific techniques with regards to pedaling and articulation to affect tone color. For example, some performers use their full body weight to depress keys to create a rich sound. Also performers create a ringing bell sound by instantly releasing pedaled notes. Finally, the cathedral is gone from sight, and only the bells are heard, at a distant pianissimo.

Musical analysis[edit]


The form of the piece can be traced through the progression of tonal centers and pitch collections. Debussy uses mainly pentatonic modes, primarily the mode C-D-E-G-A, moving this mode through several tonics. In the Introduction, starting at measure 1, the G major pentatonic, G-A-B-D-E, is featured. This mode holds until measure 7, beginning a short section using the same mode now in C#. In measure 13, the G idea returns for two bars. Measure 15 marks the beginning of a new formal section, A, beginning in B major pentatonic, made distinct by eighth note triplets in the left hand. After three bars, it modulates to Eb pentatonic, continuing the same thematic idea, again for three bars. The next section is a subset of A, noted as c in the timeline. It begins in measure 28 and introduces a diatonic key for the first time, the key of C major. The melodic statement here in C major is the climax of the piece. Within this climactic section, measures 21-45, Debussy briefly modulates to F major, but finishes again in C major. The next section, B, measures 46-67, is a composite of earlier themes. First, it brings back material from the middle of the A section, again centered on C#, but now in c# minor. Remaining in C#, it skips to material from the beginning of B, and continues with this material until bar 67, modulating briefly through E and G# minor pentatonic. In measure 67, Debussy transitions between G# Pentatonic pitch collection to the French-Sixth; using F-sharp, G-sharp, C, D (m.70). Debussy uses this unstable pitch collection, with no clear tonic to facilitate a smooth transition between G# minor Pentatonic to C Major Pentatonic. This also acts as the transition from the B section to the A’ section of the piece. The A′ begins at measure 72 and lasts until measure 84, where a brief restatement of the opening material in G major pentatonic acts as the postlude.

The nearly symmetrical form of intro-ABA-outro helps illustrate the legend that Debussy is alluding to in the work, and his markings help point toward both the form and the legend. For example, the first section is described as being “dans une brume doucement sonore,” or “in a sweetly sonorous fog.” Then, at measure 16, the markings say “peu à peu sortant de la brume,” or “little by little emerging from the fog.” This change in imagery (as well as the accompanying change in tonality) could represent the cathedral emerging from under the water. At measure 72, the marking says “comme un écho de la phrase entendue précedemment,” or “like an echo of the previously heard phrase,” which could be like the cathedral which had emerged gradually getting farther away and perhaps returning into the water. It also implies that this section is a mirror of one which came before, giving further support to the intro-ABA-outro structure. Finally, the marking at measure 84 says, “Dans la sonorité du début,” or “In the sonority of the beginning,” which further emphasizes the symmetry of the piece and supports the idea of measures 1-14. and 84-90 being a paired “intro” and “outro.”

Thematic/motivic structure[edit]

In this piece, Debussy composes the music using motivic development, rather than thematic development.[7] After all, “Debussy mistrusted [thematic] development as a method of composition.”[8] Fundamentally, the entire piece is made up of two basic motifs, with the first motif existing in three different variations, making 4 fragments in total (not counting the inversions and transpositions of each).[9] The motifs are: 1) D-E-B ascending; 1a) D-E-A ascending; 1b) D-E-G ascending; 2) E-C# descending. Debussy masterfully saturates the entire structure of the piece with these motifs in large- and small-scale ways. For example, motif 1 appears in the bottom of the right-hand chords on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarter notes of measure 14 (D-E-B), and again in the next three quarter note beats (D-E-B). Not by coincidence, motif 1b is heard in the 4th, 5th, and 6th quarter note beats of measure 14 (B-D-E). Motif 1 is heard on a broader scale in the bass notes (dotted whole notes) in measures 1-16, hitting the notes of the motif in inversion and transposition on the down-beats of measures 1, 15, and 16 (G-C-B). Also within measures 1 through 15 are two occurrences of motif 2 (G in measure 1, E in measure 5; E in measure 5, C in measure 15.) Motif 1 is also heard in a soprano voice from measure 1-15: The high D in measures 1, 3, and 5; the soprano E octave that occurs 12 times from measures 6-13; the high B in measures 14 and 15. Throughout all of this motivic repetition, transposition, and inversion, the themes (longer phrases made up of the smaller motifs) stay very much static, with only occasional elongation or shortening throughout the piece: The rising pentatonic theme in measure 1 (theme 1) repeats in measure 3, 5, 14, 15, 16, 17, 84, 85, and with a slight variations in measures 28-40 and 72-83. A second theme (theme 2), appearing for the first time in measures 7-13, repeats in measures 47-51.[10]


This prelude is typical of Debussy's compositional characteristics. It is a complete exploration of chordal sound that encompasses the entire range of the piano, and that includes one of Debussy's signature chords (a major tonic triad with added 2nd and 6th scale degrees).[11] Third, it shows Debussy's use of parallel harmony (the section beginning in measure 28, especially), which is defined as a coloration of the melodic line. This is quite different from simple melodic doubling, like the 3rds in Voiles, or the 5ths in La Mer, which are not usually heard alone without a significant accompanimental figure. Parallel harmony forces the chords to be understood less with functional roots, and more as coloristic expansions of the melodic line.[12] Overall, this prelude, as a representative of the 24 preludes, shows Debussy's radical compositional process when viewed in light of the previous 200 years of classical and romantic music.


Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie contains instances of one of the most significant techniques found in the music of the Impressionist period called parallelism. There are two methods of parallelism in music; exact and inexact. Inexact parallelism allows the quality of the harmonic intervals to vary throughout the line, even if the interval sizes are identical, while exact parallelism the sizes and qualities remain the same as the line progresses. Inexact parallelism can give a sense of tonality, while exact parallelism can dispel the sense of tonality as pitch content cannot be analyzed diatonically in a single key.[13]

Debussy uses the technique of parallelism (also known as harmonic planing) in his prelude to dilute the sense of direction motion found in prior traditional progressions. Through application, tonal ambiguity is created that is often seen in Impressionist music. It can be noted that it took some time for Impressionist music to be appreciated, but the critics and the listening public eventually warmed up to this experiment in harmonic freedom.[14]


Various arrangements and transcriptions of the piece exist. A transcription for solo organ was made by Léon Roques and Jean-Baptiste Robin in 2011 (recording Brillant Classics 94233). It was arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski as The Engulfed Cathedral and released in a recording in 1930. It appears in a cover version on the album Grand Guignol by John Zorn's band Naked City. Sections of Debussy's piece are also used in the introduction and final of Renaissance's song At the Harbour, from their 1973 album Ashes Are Burning. Isao Tomita arranged the piece for electronic synthesizer as part of his Snowflakes Are Dancing recording of 1973–1974. John Carpenter used it as sound track in his 1981 scifi movie Escape from New York. The composer Henri Büsser made a transcription for orchestra of this piece in 1921, while composer Colin Matthews arranged it for the Hallé Orchestra in 2007.[15]


  1. ^Lobanova, Marina, trans. Kate Cook, Musical Style and Genre: History and Modernity (Routledge, 2000), 92.
  2. ^Hutcheson, Ernst, The Literature of the Piano (New York: Knopf, 1981), 314.
  3. ^DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  4. ^Trezise, Simon. "Chronology of Debussy's Life and Works." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), xv
  5. ^Potter, Caroline. "Debussy and Nature." The Companion to Debussy". Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 141.
  6. ^DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  7. ^Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 205.
  8. ^Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind, volume 2. (MacMillin, 1965), 231.
  9. ^Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 195.
  10. ^Reti, Rudolph. The Thematic Process in Music. (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 196-199.
  11. ^DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190.
  12. ^DeVoto, Mark. "The Debussy Sound: colour, texture, gesture." The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Ed. Simon Trezise. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 187.
  13. ^Connie Mayfield, Theory Essentials (Cengage Learning 2012), 483
  14. ^McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Claude Debussy, (1998): Accessed March 17, 2015.
  15. ^"Cathédrale Engloutie". Faber Music. Retrieved 24 July 2016. 

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